PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Confidence and doubt duel on a razor’s edge.
At this sport’s highest level, on its grandest stages, close calls can be as exhilarating as they are debilitating.
At what point does Lee Westwood’s belief he’s succeeding by playing his way to the doorstep of a monumental victory turn into the dreaded sense he lacks something necessary to open the door?
When does the confidence gained playing the shots that get you so close to winning the game’s biggest prizes become confidence lost knowing you couldn’t play the winning shots?
It’s the ultimate mind game Westwood plays heading into the U.S. Open in six weeks.
Westwood gave himself another chance to win a big prize Sunday, but he failed to finish once more.
A shot ahead making the turn to the back nine, Westwood closed with a 39. He didn’t make a birdie over his final 13 holes and walked away tied for fourth, four shots behind the winner, Tim Clark.
“I didn’t play well enough,” Westwood said afterward. “I played pretty average, really. I didn’t really feel like I played that great all week, and I was quite proud to be in the lead going into the last day.
“Finishing fourth, not playing my best, I have to be pleased.”
Who says you can’t play defense in golf? That’s defense. That’s protecting your confidence and all the positive momentum you’ve built climbing to No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Westwood, 37, has won 20 European titles and one PGA Tour title in New Orleans a dozen years ago. Westwood’s a winner everywhere but in major championships, where greatness is singularly measured in golf. The Englishman has appeared poised to break through, distinguishing himself as the most consistent factor in golf’s biggest events the last two seasons. He’s finished tied for third or better in four of the last eight majors, but he’s consistently disappointed with his finish.
It’s tough territory on a razor’s edge.
Losing deals a harder blow the closer you get to winning.
“It is a delicate balance,” Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, said while packing up his player’s locker Sunday evening. “You just keep knocking on the door until it opens.”
Westwood was the first player in 33 years to lead both the Masters and The Players Championship after 54 holes in the same year. Tom Watson, the last to do it, was at least able to come away with one of the prizes, a green jacket.
Since 2008, Westwood has come within a shot of making a playoff in the U.S. Open and also the British Open, but he didn’t capitalize on chances at the final holes of both.
On Sunday, at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, Westwood let it get away before arriving at the final hole.
At the 16th hole, two shots back, Westwood hit a heavy 5-iron short in the front bunker of that reachable par 5. Still, with a chance to pull within a shot, he rimmed out his 9-foot birdie chance.
“Another rubbish iron shot with a 5-iron,” Westwood said.
At the 17th, Westwood shot himself out of it, ballooning a wedge that plunked into the water short of the island green. It led to double bogey.
“That was tricky with the yardage,” Westwood said. “I was caught right between a 9-iron and forcing a wedge. I hit a wedge and it climbed up into the wind. On that line, it was never going to carry.”
Westwood has lots of fight in him. He showed that holing monster putts for par at the ninth and 14th holes Sunday. He showed it after climbing to No. 4 in the world a decade ago only to plummet to 264th when his swing left him in a miserable slump and then fighting all the way back to No. 4 again. He did it rebuilding his body and his confidence.
After Mickelson beat him by three shots at the Masters last month, Westwood left no clues that another close call was beating him down. On the contrary, he let everyone know he was emboldened by the fact that he’s consistently giving himself chances to win majors.
“I'm playing the best golf of anyone,” Westwood told the English media in the aftermath of his Masters’ loss. “It's hard to argue for anyone else. If you are [the best] you might as well say it. It builds confidence.”
Westwood wasn’t done and aimed his ambition at next month’s U.S. Open.
“It would be a big surprise, the way I'm playing, if I hadn't won a major by the end of 2011,” he said.
When you play on the razor’s edge, where confidence and doubt thrust and parry, you feed confidence to keep it strong. Westwood will need it to keep seeing himself as a man on the verge of breaking through and not a man who’s squandered chances in a window that’s closing. He’ll need it to win the ultimate mind game.