“This was one of the first ones that went in,” Westwood said Wednesday. “It’s a priority for me to try to come and defend whenever I can, and I like to play the week before a major championship. I was fairly sure I was going to use this as one of my three invites.”
Westwood is limited each year on the number of PGA events he can play since the Englishman gave up his U.S. membership in 2008. But he said he’s only missed one chance to defend a title in about 35 opportunities, and that happened only because two tournaments were scheduled the same week.
So I’ve always tried to get back,” Westwood said.
He also likes the 7,239-yard, par-70 course as a tuneup for the U.S. Open. Count Westwood among those who like the mental tuneup of having to sink 3-foot putts. While the TPC Southwind course is different from Congressional, Westwood calls it a demanding test.
“It certainly demands that you hit the fairways and hit the greens, which is pretty much the blueprint for playing good U.S. Open golf as well,” Westwood said.
Nobody has successfully defended a PGA Tour title yet this year, Westwood will face a field featuring five of the world’s top 32 in Robert Karlsson, David Toms, Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy and Zach Johnson.
Toms could be a big threat, having won here in 2003 and 2004. He also won Colonial late last month and was second at The Players and ranks second in greens in regulation and third in driving accuracy.
“I look forward to the challenge,” Toms said. “It’ll be tough to win this golf tournament with all the good players, and I’ve just got to go out there and play well and see how that stacks up.”
Considering the luck he had here a year ago, no wonder Westwood was determined to return.
Westwood had signed his card and was ready to leave a year ago when advised to stick around. Robert Garrigus blew a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole, and Westwood won his second PGA Tour title in a three-way playoff in what he called an amazing finish.
“Sometimes you don’t win tournaments you think you should have won, and sometimes you win tournaments that some other guy should have won,” Westwood said. “If you put yourself in the position often enough, that’s going to happen.”
Westwood went on to take the No. 1 ranking away from Tiger Woods, though he now ranks second to Luke Donald after losing a playoff in the European Tour’s PGA Championship. Westwood finished tied for 11th at The Masters and also has won the Indonesian Masters in April and in South Korea this year.
Garrigus responded well after melting down on the par-4 No. 18. He drove into the water and hit his third shot into the trees left that forced him to pitch out. He walked off the green with a triple-bogey 7 back to the 18th tee for a playoff with Westwood and Karlsson. He bogeyed the first hole to finish the collapse.
He credited Chris DiMarco among others with reminding him how hard he worked to get the lead. Then he went against all advice to avoid watching TV.
“Everybody was telling me not to watch The Golf Channel and not to watch PTI and all that stuff, but I watched it giggling because I knew I was going to win again and it was just a matter of time,” Garrigus said.
He finished 2010 by winning the tour’s final event at Disney, and he opened this year losing a playoff to Jonathan Byrd in the Tournament of Champions. Now he’s back at a course where he feels very comfortable, especially in targeting holes on the greens with his ability to spin the ball with his middle irons.
Garrigus has been grouped with Westwood and Karlsson for the first two rounds starting Thursday, which he expected. He’s busy dealing with what he called mixed emotions feeling like he’s the defending champ and not Westwood.
But he knows how he’ll feel when he reaches the 18th tee.
“I’m not going to screw it up this time. I know what to do and where to hit it and in what situation, and last year helped my career leaps and bounds even though I lost in the playoff and made 7 on the last hole,” Garrigus said.
Golfers will have to deal with sizzling heat too with temperatures expected to hit the mid-90s. Mix in the humidity, and Garrigus predicted he’ll need to drink 15 bottles of water a day alone to stay hydrated.
Both Westwood and Karlsson compared playing in Memphis to the conditions in Indonesia and Malaysia.
“That’s part of playing this event,” Karlsson said. “You just have to take it and prepare as well as you can and make sure you stay hydrated and not get too caught up in outside conditions.”
Divots: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow played in Wednesday’s pro-am with former coach Urban Meyer, and he drew a bigger crowd warming up on the practice range than Westwood did as he headed to the putting green. … Vijay Singh’s withdrawal allowed Michael Letzig into the field. D.A. Points, Ricky Barnes and Jose Marie Olazabal also withdrew.