Whether the Englishman ever wins a Major is not the point. He has firmly put himself in the running to be included in golf’s Hall of Fame, writes GARY LEMKE in the latest issue of Compleat Golfer.
Here we go again, time for that chat. It’s one of the most unfair labels in golf, mainly because it picks the scabs off wounds that should have healed. When Sergio Garcia won the 2017 Masters he pulled on the Green Jacket and at the same time passed on the mantle of ‘Best golfer not to win a Major’ to Lee Westwood.
It was a case of 74th time lucky in the Majors for the Spaniard, who has subsequently gone on to win another nine times on the PGA Tour, three more times on the European Tour and once on each of the Japan and Asian Tours. Now about to celebrate his 41st birthday, it seems as though Garcia has been around forever. He has 36 wins globally, including twice at ‘Africa’s Major’, the Nedbank Golf Challenge as far back as 2001 and 2003.
Two years ago, Garcia stood shell-shocked as Lee Westwood charged home in spectacular fashion to close with a 64 and beat him to the NGC title at Sun City. Yes, ‘Africa’s Major’, but not one of the official four on the men’s Tour.
I’ll never forget the look on his face as he awaited his turn to speak to the media – first it was Louis Oosthuizen (third), then Garcia and then Westwood. The Spaniard, off camera, put both his hands hands over his face for a few seconds. Then, he removed his cap with that thousand-yard stare, rubbing his forehead with one hand. Then he put his cap back on, straightened his shirt and put his game face back on for the media interview.
Let no one ever tell you that a golfer ‘has made enough money, he doesn’t care whether he wins or loses’. That doesn’t apply to any pro golfer on the planet, not Tiger Woods, not Ernie Els or Louis Oosthuizen and not even Garcia who, in 2017 could finally call himself a Major champion at his 74th attempt.
So, spare a thought for Westwood, who along with Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler, are the clubhouse leaders in that discussion for the mythical ‘Best golfer not to win a Major’.
Westwood, a 47-year-old Englishman, is on No 84 and counting, despite those 44 worldwide victories, including four in South Africa – three of them being at Sun City at the NGC in 2010, 2011 and 2018.
‘It’s been four years since I last won on the European Tour,’ he told the media at Sun City in 2018. ‘I’m 45 but I feel really fit. I’m ready to play another 18.
‘Nick Price said to me years ago that you need to work on your fitness and get to the level where you feel you can play another 18 holes straight away. I’m at that level. I don’t really have aches and pains. I groan a bit when I get out of bed every morning and it takes a little bit longer to loosen up the bones and get going, but I still hit the ball as far as I used to. And I’ve still got it mentally, today I proved it.’
Two more birthdays have passed but Westwood is still enjoying this next phase of life, even winning twice on a truncated European Tour this year.
‘When I was young I shot a lot of 63s and 64s to win and it’s like a habit – once you start doing it, it becomes easier and easier. It’s a strange thing to describe how you do it. There’s no panic in your game, in yourself. You might miss a couple early on, but you remain calm and it just sort of happens.
‘I really think I’m hitting it as well as I was end of the 1990s, beginning of 2000s. I’m under control, got a lot of width and my distance control is brilliant. That’s the part of my game I’m most pleased with – when you have a wedge in your hand you really have to convert a birdie chance.’
He teed up at the recent Masters ranked 47th in the world, while having touched as low as No 28 after a tie-fourth at the Honda Classic at the beginning of March.
He has played 19 times at The Masters, 19 times at the US Open, 25 times at The Open Championship and 21 times at The PGA Championship. That’s a tally of 84 Majors – and ‘all’ he has to show for it are two runner-up positions at Augusta, second at the 2010 Open – albeit seven shots behind runaway winner Oosthuizen – and third-place finishes at The PGA Championship and US Open (twice).
Here again, with his partner and caddie Helen Storey on his bag, he rolled back the years to open with a four-under-par 68.
‘This is my favourite golf course in the world and my favorite tournament, thereabouts, with The Open Championship. Just to drive down Magnolia Lane and experience everything, and to play the golf course. You don’t get many opportunities to play it. I tend to play well when I play a lot, and I’ve played a lot more than I normally would recently,’ he added. ‘I’m the kind of golfer who plays his way into form and I’ve just been playing consistently well, but just not really putting four rounds together and finishing it off.’
As a former world No 1 – he spent 22 weeks on top, starting late 2010 and ending Tiger Woods’ five years at the summit – Westwood has often been criticised for not winning a Major. Age, however, has inured him to such barbs. There was a time when he was sick of being asked about his failure to win one of the big four championships after critics queried his right to be considered world No 1.
Ernie Els used to offer him advice. ‘Win a Major,’ the Big Easy would tell him. ‘Get the monkey off your back.’
Els topped the World Ranking for nine weeks in 1997 and 1998 and said he too endured critics saying he was not a worthy No 1 – though he already had a US Open title under his belt. ‘I remember when I was No 1, I got stick for it because people said the same about me; that I wasn’t doing enough, though I had won a Major. It’s something that’s going to stick with Lee – you reporters are going to keep asking the question. I think he’s done enough.’
But, time mellows and takes the edge off any anger. ‘I do read the papers, but they don’t bother me,’ Westwood said 20 years ago. ‘Occasionally I see articles I don’t like. I remember who writes them. I’ve got a little list at home. Not that little.’ When asked, after his third Nedbank Golf Challenge victory, what he thought of the media regarding the final day to be a shootout between Garcia and Oosthuizen, he replied. ‘I’m sorry but I don’t read newspapers any more. In fact I read nothing in print so I didn’t see it.’
Westwood’s back story is similar to others who have stood on the manicured fairways and greens of the most hallowed venues in that he had a strong connection with his father. ‘Lee and I shot somewhere in the neighbourhood of 180 in our first event together at Kilton Fore,’ dad John told Golf World in 2013. ‘On the third day, Lee chipped in for his first birdie and then I made a long putt on the same hole for my first birdie.’
Westwood jnr went on to become a scratch golfer by 19 but early in his career he had a ‘reputation’ and some British tabloids called him one of the ‘Spice Boys’, along with Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke. Both bachelors, they favoured fast cars and were often pictured in the tabloids escorting various starlets and supermodels around the town. Westwood then sold his Porsche to buy a Mercedes sedan, mainly because his clubs didn’t fit in the boot.
On the opening day of the latest Masters ESPN showed a graphic of the golfers with the most Major starts without a win, also including Ian Poulter (65) and Matt Kuchar (58). The top of the list, obviously, was Westwood – and he certainly set hearts aflutter by opening with a 68.
Westwood did not qualify for The Masters in 2018 (the first time he missed the event in 13 years) and he missed it again in 2019, but qualified for a spot at this year’s tournament with a top-four finish at The Open at Royal Portrush in 2019.
‘It’s nice to be back,’ Westwood said. ‘I’ve played well here in the past but missed the last two, and you know, nobody likes sitting at home watching this tournament when you know you could be playing in it. So it’s good to be back and it’s good to start with a nice first round and play myself into the tournament.’
As the oldest player in the world’s top 50 – along with the ‘baggage’ of not winning a Major, something which surely borders on trolling – he has a philosophy of ‘never say never’. There are also no regrets. ‘I’ve had my chances but I’ve never walked away from any Masters cursing myself for not winning,’ he said.
‘Way back in 1999, I was leading heading down the 10th in the final round, so I knew early on that it was a course that suited my game. In 2010, I played well enough to win, but Phil got a few breaks, then hit a great shot at the 13th to take advantage. In 2016, I was playing with Danny Willett and we were walking down the 15th when we were both given an unexpected chance, as Jordan Spieth made a mess of the 12th. But, even then, Danny played the last three holes brilliantly, so you have to say well done to him.’
Kudos though especially go to one of the ultimate professionals of the modern game, a popular man who has given us all so many memories down the years. And, after 84 Majors, it’s still not over.