Changing of the Guard


Ryder Cup

NEWPORT, Wales – Tiger Woods isn’t the best player in the world anymore, but he got to see his future successor close up Saturday at the Ryder Cup.

Lee Westwood looked Woods in the eye in the afternoon matches and showed him why he’s going to seize that unofficial title and Woods’ No. 1 world ranking before this year is out, maybe before this month is out.

Despite eight weeks on the bench recovering from a torn calf muscle, Westwood is in razor sharp form at Celtic Manor.

Westwood and Luke Donald are thrashing the American juggernaut in foursomes.

The European combo was leading Woods and Steve Stricker 4 up through nine holes when darkness fell and suspended the match. Woods and Stricker’s first loss as a team in international competition is imminent, and it threatens to tilt this Ryder Cup hard. 

Lee Westwood
Lee Westwood is poised to overtake the world No. 1 ranking. (Getty Images)

Europe’s victory in this match promises to feel like more than a point. Stricker and Woods are unbeaten in international team events, 6-0 overall and 2-0 in this event. American captain Corey Pavin sent them out first to try to keep American momentum going after a strong morning foursomes showing, but Europe struck fast.

Westwood holed birdie putts at the first and second holes to put the Euros 2 up in advancing a charge that would see the Europeans ahead in all six matches when play was suspended.

“Lee Westwood is my top-ranked player, and has proved it, simple as that,” European captain Colin Montgomerie said. “He’s been unbelievable in the team room, in the locker room, on the range, on the course, some of the shots he hits.”

Westwood threatens to extend his Ryder Cup mastery over Woods. He’s 5-1 against Woods in the biennial matches, though they’ve never played in singles. A Sunday singles matchup would be perfect, but that will depend on fate with the captains filing their lineups without the benefit of seeing each other’s plan.

A head-to-head matchup might set up the changing of the guard this fall. Westwood, 37, a 20-time European Tour winner, is a man who appears on the rise. Woods is a man trying to regain confidence.

Despite eight weeks away recuperating, Westwood will make a major move in Monday’s new world ranking. European Tour officials who administer the rankings confirmed that Westwood will move to No. 2, bumping Phil Mickelson down to No. 3.

With Woods off his best form, and with no plans to play again until the HSBC Champions the first week of November, Westwood is positioned to overtake Woods. Westwood is scheduled to play the Alfred Dunhill Links next week and is likely to play the Portugal Masters the week after. Westwood can overtake Woods by finishing among the top 20 or better in both those events.

Westwood’s rise to No. 1 would generate some debate about whether he’s actually the world’s best player. Though he’s finished tied for third or better in four of the last five major championships he’s played, Westwood’s never won a major. He said not being able to play the PGA Championship in August and not being able to mount a run at the No. 1 ranking was difficult.

“Very very frustrating,” Westwood said at week’s start. “But at the same time, nobody's stepped up to the plate and grasped the bat and run with it really and gone away from me. I'm quite fortunate in that regard. I expected people around me to, especially with the tournaments that we have been playing, and with so many world ranking points available in the FedEx Cup, I expected to be further behind than I am. So I'm quite pleased with the position I'm still in.”

Despite his 2-0 mark with Stricker this week, Woods has struggled, especially in the Westwood-Donald match. While he’s improving in making over his swing with Sean Foley, he needs more time. Stricker’s hot putter has helped hide some of Woods’ shortcomings.

Westwood, on the other hand, has been rising to the occasion since the moment he took the first tee to hit the opening shot for the Europeans in this Ryder Cup. Westwood wanted the honor. He told Montgomerie so, and he striped that first shot down the middle. He wants the No. 1 world ranking, too. He’s telling Woods that with his play so far this week.