Lee Westwood’s first defining moment since gaining the No. 1 world ranking 15 weeks ago is at hand.
It begins when he steps to the first tee Thursday in a highly anticipated pairing with No. 2 Martin Kaymer and No. 3 Tiger Woods at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
It’s Westwood’s big chance to shut up all his critics.
It’s his chance to show everyone who thinks he’s an unworthy successor to Tiger Woods that he’s not accidentally, uneventfully or temporarily the guy at the top of the game today.
It’s Westwood’s chance to show something to all those folks who think Kaymer is really the best player in the world right now.
Of course, it’s not that the first- and second-round results really matter this week. It’s not that Dubai’s a make-or-break event. The week feels important because of how it can shatter or confirm American suspicions of Westwood’s pedigree.
This isn’t about Westwood coming over to uncomfortable foreign American turf to prove himself. This is Westwood defending his turf in a European Tour event. This is the 17th time he’ll tee it up in the Dubai Desert Classic, where he’s finished runner-up twice. It’s all part of what makes this week feel like the most important tournament of the year so far.
It may unfold overseas, but Westwood can win a lot of respect he isn’t getting yet in the United States.
In some corners, Westwood’s got much to prove because he’s viewed as the least impressive No. 1 in the history of the Official World Golf Ranking. The harsh view is that he has made his climb racking up rankings points while squandering chances to win majors and big events. Of the 13 players who have held the No. 1 world ranking, he’s the only one who doesn’t have a major championship on his resume, though three others won their majors after they ascended to No. 1. Westwood was runner-up in two majors last year. He’s finished second or third in five of his last 10 majors, but he hasn’t shown the ability to win the events that most measure greatness.
Over the last 14 months, Westwood’s won just one official European Tour or PGA Tour event. He’s won just five times on either tour over the last seven seasons. Kaymer’s won five times in the last 14 months.
And the year hasn’t started particularly well for Westwood. In his two starts this year, he’s lost to Kaymer by 26 shots at the Abu Dhabi Championship and missed the cut at the Qatar Masters.
Win something big!
Beat somebody big!
That’s the cold, skeptic’s view of Westwood’s circumstance.
There’s another compelling side to the circumstance, however. A fantastic side to Westwood’s story.
If you’ve followed Westwood’s career, you’ve seen the inspiring climb out of a slump every bit as deep as the one Woods is mired in, minus the personal scandal. You’ve seen the inspiring fight in a guy who’s fought back from a mystifying slide after inexplicably losing his swing. After climbing as high as No. 4 in the world in 2000, then plummeting to No. 264 amid his struggles, it’s remarkable how formidably he’s put his game and his confidence back together. It speaks volumes about the nature of the man, about his resilience and perseverance.
Westwood’s story inspires. It’s why so many people do root for him and why so many believe the big wins will follow for him.
With his rebuilt body, his rebuilt swing, he’s become one of the best drivers in the game.
There aren’t many players as long as Westwood who are as consistently straight. There isn’t anyone as consistently straight who hits it as long.
At 37, all the pieces of Westwood’s game seem to be coming together. In so many ways, this seems like his time. You see it in the dignified and graceful manner in which he’s carrying the No. 1 ranking. There’s no apologizing for the way he claimed the top spot. He's relishing his circumstance, even thriving in it.
If this really is Westwood’s time, then maybe this will be his week, too, his first defining moment as No. 1.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell