GULLANE, Scotland – Let’s paint a pretty picture.
Justin Rose collected epic pars on the last two holes of the U.S. Open last month at Merion to become the first Englishman to claim the prize in 43 years.
Thirteen days ago, Scotland’s Andy Murray defeated favored Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the Wimbleon final to become the first British man to capture the coveted crown in 77 years. The United Kingdom still is celebrating the feat.
See what we’re doing here? This is a big deal.
England’s Lee Westwood leads his beloved Open Championship after 54 holes at Muirfield. If the Summer of Britain is to continue, the hopes rest on Westwood’s broad shoulders. More precisely, the hopes rest on his putter, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
As much as Westwood tried to downplay his position late Saturday evening – saying he enjoys this moment and he doesn’t consider this a high-pressure situation – this is his best chance to finally capture major glory. At 40 years old, Westwood has accumulated as much major-championship scar tissue as anyone in the Tiger Woods era.
Westwood has collected seven top-three majors championship finishes since the 2008 U.S. Open, where he was one shot out of the Monday playoff between Woods and Rocco Mediate. Westwood held the 54-hole lead at the 2010 Masters and lost to a sizzling Phil Mickelson. During the final round of the 2012 U.S. Open, Westwood lost his ball in a tree on the fifth hole and had to declare it lost. He ultimately made double bogey on the hole and fell from contention and tied for 10th place.
He’s played well in majors and lost to someone better, he’s played poorly and thrown some away.
“I know what it takes,” Westwood said. “Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one.”
On this beautiful Saturday on the coast of the Firth of Forth, in the bright shining spotlight that goes with playing alongside Woods, that goes along with playing your home major championship, Westwood played like the man with 14 majors on the resume.
Both titans began the day at 2 under par, one shot behind Miguel Angel Jimenez. Four hours later, Westwood shot 70 to Woods’ 72 and will take a two-shot lead over Woods and Hunter Mahan into the final 18 holes. It was the eighth time in the last 13 occasions in which they have been paired together that Westwood shot a lower score than Woods. Woods had the lower score four times and they tied once.
“He’s won tournaments all over the world,” Woods said. “He knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead and we’re going to go out there and both compete and play.”
Woods struck the first blow when he made birdie on the second hole to grab a share of the lead but Westwood made eagle on the par-5 fifth hole when he putted from off the front of the massive green. In a four-hole stretch, between Nos. 4-7, Westwood gained four shots on his playing competitor.
The shot of the day – and quite likely the shot of the week if Westwood goes on to win the claret jug – came in the form of bogey on the par-3 16th hole. Westwood hit his worst shot of the day off the tee and the ball landed well left of the green in thick, gnarly hay. He chopped out but failed to put the ball on the green. The ensuing chip shot ended 20 feet from the hole and Westwood drained the putt, turning potential double bogey into bogey. Westwood made birdie from 15 feet on the 17th hole while Woods made bogey. The last three holes had plot twists aplenty.
Now, the putter. It has been Westwood’s nemesis in big moments for the better part of his career – sans the Ryder Cup, where he seems more at ease and putts fall more regularly. Here at Muirfield, not only is Westwood putting well, he leads the field with only 81 putts through three rounds. What once was a curse now is a blessing.
“I’ve won 40 times, you don’t not putt well winning that many,” Westwood said. “I putted nicely this week. I’ve got a key that I’m thinking about and I’m rolling the ball well. It’s starting on the line that I pick, which is nice to see.”
Westwood began working on his putting with Aussie Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open champion, two weeks ago and the two have worked diligently on loosening up with the flatstick in hand and releasing all tension in the motion.
Putts will have to drop again for one more day if Westwood is going to please his people and claim the 142nd playing of the Open Championship. He’s paired with Mahan in the final group, while Woods and Adam Scott will be just ahead in the day’s penultimate pairing.
Woods has never won a major while trailing after 54 holes, a stat that’s not lost on Westwood. If Westwood is to win he’ll have to focus as well as he did Saturday and hope to fight off a once-nervous putting stroke, all while watching Woods try to win his 15th overall major and first in more than five years.
It’s a tall task, but one for which Westwood feels prepared.
“I’m hoping it’s going to turn out differently because I haven’t won one yet and I’d like to win one,” Westwood said. “You can only do what you think is right and put all that practice and hard work you’ve done tomorrow, try not to get in your own way mentally and just focus on the job at hand and believe you’re good enough.”
If it doesn’t, “it’s not the end of the world,” Westwood proclaimed.
No, but it’ll put a damper on what has been a great summer for Britain.