Westwood on top after Thursday; Sunday the goal


AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s a title Lee Westwood wears almost as well as one of those tailored golf shirts, without even a hint of regret or resentment.

With a monsoon of respect to reigning world No. 1 Luke Donald, Westwood is – by almost every measure – the best active player without a major championship. Just ask Donald.

“Obviously my name would be in the hat. Lee's been around quite a bit and he's obviously had probably more opportunities than I have to win majors,” the Englishman said on Tuesday.

Yet unlike others who have eschewed the title, Westwood seems, if not comfortable, then at least content with his plight, using it as a kind of competitive currency gleaned from the fact that he may not have a Grand Slam to call his own but he sure has been close . . . a lot.

Westwood has finished inside the top 3 in five of his last nine majors, including a runner-up showing at Augusta National in 2010 when he finished three strokes behind Phil Mickelson despite a 2-under 34 on his closing nine.

Wild Day 1 at Augusta National

So if the world’s third-ranked golfer seemed a tad indifferent following his opening 67 on Thursday at the Masters it was by design.

Where others see failure, Westwood embraces opportunity. He didn’t lose the ’10 Masters; Lefty won it. He didn’t blow the 2009 British Open with three bogeys over his final four holes; Stewart Cink simply outlasted the pack.

From these missed opportunities, Westwood has modeled himself a work in progress, a distinction some may not embrace but one he seems comfortable with.

“When you’re in contention and you don’t finish it off you go home and assess what you did wrong, the areas of the game that let me down,” said Westwood, who leads Louis Oosthuizen and Peter Hanson by a stroke. “I do that after every tournament.”

For Westwood, Day 1 was straight out of the ballstriker’s playbook – 16 of 18 greens in regulation, 12 of 14 fairways and, for better or worse, 31 putts. If his status as the world’s best without a major is the ‘what,’ his often-pedestrian putting is the ‘why.’

It is what ultimately drove him to putting guru Phil Kenyon last September and the results have been, if not dramatic, then at least encouraging.

On Thursday, on greens that were slowed – at least by Augusta National standards – by consecutive days of afternoon downpours, Westwood had just one three-putt. He pulled away from the field with consecutive birdie putts of 4, 10, 6 and 1 ½ feet at Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8, respectively, and made an 8-footer for birdie at the 17th hole to secure his status as overnight frontrunner.

His work with Kenyon has been less mechanical than it has been mental.

“It’s more of the way to practice, just a bit more methodology. He used to not have any structure on the putting green,” said Westwood’s manager Chubby Chandler with International Sports Management.

“He’s always been a fantastic practicer of the long game. You watch him on the range, his practice is real quality. Watch him on the putting green and it’s never been the same quality. What we tried to do is match the quality on the putting green to the quality on the range.”

But if the collective scar tissue of a lifetime of unfulfilled majors isn’t occupying his thoughts, his status as England’s great Augusta National hope likely doesn’t resonate either.

It’s been 16 years since an Englishman won the Masters, a drought that stretches back to 1996 when Nick Faldo won the last of his three green jackets. Not that Westwood seems interested in history lessons at this point.

In fact, if Westwood is influenced by any external forces it may only be the media’s fixation this week on a limited field of contenders. On Tuesday, he was asked about one national magazine’s take that this Masters only had two real contenders – Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

“You know, Rory has never won here. Tiger's not won here since 2005. So I think everybody in this room would have to be naïve to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn't they?” Westwood figured. “There's more. I think (Mickelson) might have a little bit of something to say about that; Luke might; I might.”

If Thursday’s near-flawless card is any indication, he might also finally be ready to shed his status as golf’s best player without a major.