RETURN OF A WARRIOR

Lee Westwood's joyful career renaissance tempered by halt to competition

By John Huggan

With the game in a state of shutdown almost worldwide, it’s a safe bet that no member of professional golf’s elite is feeling very happy right now. But few are quite as frustrated by this unprecedented state of affairs as Lee Westwood. Only a handful of players have shown better form over the last few months than the 46-year-old Englishman. So, what was looking like an amazing 2020 is, at least temporarily, on hold.

“Just when I was getting going,” he says with a resigned shrug.

Perhaps even more discouraging, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has come along at a time when Westwood’s misplaced enthusiasm for the game has returned. That’s the game in which he has recorded 44 worldwide victories while amassing a major championship record that boasts 19 top-10s, 12 top-5s, nine top-3s and three runners-up finishes--two of those in the Masters, where he was next month due to make his first appearance in three years. That’s a lot of success—and a lot of ultimate disappointment—in golf's four most important events.

Still, as evidence by his play since last September, Westwood is a man re-born, his love of the game renewed. Just last week, while most of his peers were otherwise engaged in the relative warmth of the Players Championship in Florida, he played 18 holes in eight-degree temperatures and 35-mph winds with three strangers, just to raise £25,000 for charity.

“They had just spiked the greens too, but I loved it,” he says with a smile.

That level of commitment comes as no surprise, at least to those paying close enough attention. Signs of recovery—“revitalisation” to use his own description—were noticeable even before Westwood won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January—his 25th European Tour victory. He secured a T-10 in November’s Turkish Airlines Open, and one week later, Westwood’s defense of the Nedbank Challenge he won in 2018 ended in a creditable T-6 finish. At an unlikely stage of his distinguished career, things are definitely looking up.

All of which came in the not-too subsequent wake of a revamping of body and mind that has re-invented Westwood, at least in terms of the Ryder Cup. Ten times a player in the biennial contest between Old and New Worlds, Westwood was one of Thomas Bjorn’s vice captains at Le Golf National in 2018. As such, he was expected to fill that role again under Padraig Harrington at Whistling Straits this September, before assuming the captaincy himself at the 2022 matches.

Not anymore. Now, Westwood is a legitimate contender for what would be a record-equaling (alongside Nick Faldo) 11th appearance in European colours.

“I’ve always had fun playing golf, because it is something I love to do,” says Westwood, a former World No. 1 who is currently ranked 31st. “But I’m having a different kind of fun now. It’s hard to explain. The outcome or how I play doesn’t really bother me. I still give 100 percent every time I’m not there. Which is all I can do. And that gives me a strange sort of freedom that is very different from where I was a couple of years ago. Back then, I wasn’t enjoying my golf to the point where I was dreading going out there. I just wasn’t comfortable with anything—my game, my life—and I just wasn’t relaxed enough to play well.”

Indeed, for long enough Westwood had a lot going on off the course. There was a divorce from wife Laurae and an acrimonious uncoupling from longtime agent, Andrew (Chubby) Chandler. Distracted, Westwood’s level of performance was understandably affected. After 13 years as one the world’s top-50 golfers, he ended each of the last three seasons ranked outside professional golf’s most important sub-set.

Things are different now though. Currently engaged to Helen, Westwood will re-marry this August at Adare Manor in Ireland (the 2026 Ryder Cup venue). And much of his off-course business is now handled by International Management Group. With all that settled, he has been free to re-focus heart and mind on his golf.

In that respect, fiancee Helen has played a role as a sometimes caddie. Fellow European Tour player Robert Rock has re-figured Westwood’s much-admired full swing. Esteemed putting coach Phil Kenyon is also on board. And psychologist Ben Davis has applied the finishing touches.

“Ben has given me clarity of thought,” explains Westwood. “He has told me a lot of truths and realities. The mistake I was making was getting swept up in things too much, making them bigger than they really were. At the end of the day, golf is just a sport where you have to put a small white ball into a small white hole. Yes, there are a lot of variables. So trying to control them all is pointless.

“I wouldn’t say I’m reckless out on the course now,” he continues. “I don’t take on shots that I shouldn’t take on. I’m disciplined and factor everything in. But once I have committed to a decision, I’m going with it. Ben told me it is better to be 100 percent committed to the wrong decision than 50 percent committed to the right one.”

 
Honda Classic 123456785_SH_6302_0135FEEAA6AB63C559D5569C1981B128
Lee Westwood. Photo by Golffile

On the technical side, Rock’s recommendations have created more width in a Westwood swing that was struggling to produce the necessary penetration on his shots, especially in a wind.

“I wasn’t happy,” Westwood says. “I had drifted away from what I had always done. And because I hadn’t worked with anyone for a while, I wasn’t spotting things. Rocky gave me some different things to work on. And that gave me an injection of enthusiasm. Sometimes it is nice to make changes. It keeps you on your toes and is fun in a strange way. I was energized by having something new to work on.

“I’ve always had a fair bit of wrist break off the ball. I was never ‘one-piece’ enough. So a later wrist break helps me ‘load up’ a bit better. As a result, I’ve got some length back. It always helps to hit the ball a bit further.”

Ah, but it is on the greens where Westwood has perhaps made the biggest and most noticeable gains. Long a bugbear--along with his chipping--the Worksop native is now a devotee of the “claw” putting grip that has transformed the fortunes of so many perennial strugglers. One week after ranking 142nd in putting at last year’s Dunhill Links Championship, Westwood was first and second in the two main putting categories.

“I had to change something and Phil had two suggestions,” Westwood says. “Either I changed to an ‘up the arm’ grip’ or the ‘claw.’ I tried both and Phil looked at the results. The claw won. I felt more comfortable with that hold on the club. And my confidence grew when the ball started on-line more, then more when I started hitting the ball out of the middle of the putter more. Then more again when my distant control improved.

“Add all that together and I am able to get a bit more speed into my stroke. I don’t worry about knocking one, two or three feet past now. I’m making those. So I can be a lot more aggressive, even if dropping the ball into the hole is still the way I see most putts. I definitely get the ball running at the hole more than I used to.”

Still, despite the quality and quantity of his play over the last quarter century, Westwood was, like most people, at least a little taken aback to hear Paul Azinger’s recent derogatory--some might say ‘sneering’--comments regarding the European Tour. The former PGA champion’s condescending tone revealed a lack of research on his part. Yes, Westwood has won only twice on the PGA Tour. But 25 victories on his home circuit have mostly been achieved in competition with the game’s best. A quick look at the list of those who have finished second behind Westwood is proof enough of that fact:

Padraig Harrington. Darren Clarke. Ian Woosnam. Thomas Bjorn. Angel Cabrera. Michael Campbell. Ernie Els. Ian Poulter. Francesco Molinari. Louis Oosthuizen. Sergio Garcia. Tommy Fleetwood. All have ended up silver medalists to Westwood’s gold, as did Greg Norman at the 1997 Australian Open. Denigrating such a body of work is clearly nonsensical.

“I don’t think anyone questions that the PGA Tour is the biggest and most lucrative tour in the world,” shrugs Westwood. “Which is why everyone wants to play there. But it was the way Paul said what he said. Plus, it’s not the first time he’s said something like that. I wasn’t shocked, although he likes to be shocking. Having said that, I bet he regrets how he said it. If he had just said what he thought, everyone would have just nodded in agreement. He just needed to be nicer about it, rather than condescending.

“Besides, back in the day, Paul came over and played on the European Tour. He won in Germany, in fact. And he wasn’t decrying our circuit when he was being offered appearance money. It pays to remember things like that sometimes.”

Looking forward, Westwood is, like everyone else, waiting to see what happens in the wake of the pandemic. And yes, there is mild frustration at having to sit out when his form is so good. In the short term though, being at home this time of year is nothing new. A notable absentee from last week’s aborted Players Championship, Westwood was merely sticking to a pre-arranged plan.

“Things have worked out pretty well, given all that is happening in the world,” he says. “But my schedule the last three years has been similar. I’ve played the three events in the Middle East, then maybe only one or two more between then and May. So this is normal for me. In hindsight, it was good to get home after Bay Hill.

“The Players was never in my plans. Yes, winning in Abu Dhabi--which got me back inside the top 50 on the world rankings--could have changed everything. But I chose to stick with my original schedule. I had asked for invitations to the Honda and San Antonio, both of which agreed immediately. So I wanted to honour those commitments rather than try to play just about everything up to the Masters. I’d have been at Augusta having played seven weeks out of eight. Which is too much. So it made no sense to go to the Players.”

Not surprisingly, Westwood’s parting thoughts returned to the Ryder Cup. He’s not quite Ian Poulter, in that his career is far from defined by the trans-Atlantic contest. But his battles with Uncle Sam’s nephews have provided many highs and lows since his debut in 1997 at Valderrama. And he is keen to return, if only to dispel the memory of what many thought would be his last appearance as a player. Up against Ryan Moore in the last-day singles, Westwood missed from short range on the 18th green to lose, 1 down.

“The first thing Padraig said to me after Abu Dhabi was ‘well played,’” he says with a smile. “He hasn’t mentioned the Ryder Cup though. I think he wants to treat me like any other player, which is how it should be. He had told me before I won that I will be at Whistling Straits in some capacity. But I’d like to be there playing.

“I’d tie the record for most appearances,” continues Westwood. “That would mean a lot. But I feel like I’m playing well enough to win points too. I don’t think I’d let anyone down. Although I’m not sure I’m a ‘five-round man’ like I was for so many Ryder Cups. I’m more of a ‘one-a-day’ guy now. Which is fine. Not many play five these days. And playing is way better than watching. I remember standing in the 18th fairway in Paris wishing I was hitting one in there. And when someone hit into the water, I was thinking I would never have done that (laughs). That’s the competitor in me.”

Of course. No matter what, some things never change.

TIPS FROM THE TOP

Other stories