PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The sun was just making its way over the treetops at TPC Sawgrass when Lee Westwood made his way to the first tee, which was not exactly center stage for a player who three years ago was the top-ranked golfer in the world.
“If they would have shouted out their names, I'd have known them all by name,” Westwood cracked about the handful of fans that braved the morning conditions when the Englishman set out at 7:15 a.m. (ET).
But if Westwood’s opening 67 at The Players is any indication, he seems at ease with obscurity, although his play of late suggests he shouldn’t get used to it.
After a winless 2013 Westwood seems to have emerged from yet another swoon, this time thanks to something old.
Westwood split with his longtime swing coach Pete Cowen before the 2012 PGA Championship and spent about six months last year working with Sean Foley – whose stable of players includes Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan. He switched again in February when he began working with Mike Walker, a disciple of Cowen’s.
“I’ve always worked more in positions in the golf swing, and Sean would put on the TrackMan and maybe change my setup position,” Westwood said. “I’ve always done things a little unorthodox, bent left arm, and I’ve always had the ball quite a way back, and he wanted me to move it up, and I feel uncomfortable with my technique doing that.
“I like a lot of stuff we worked on, and I enjoyed working with him and really enjoy his company, but sometimes you and a coach don’t match up.”
With the move to Walker, Westwood won for the first time since June 2012 last month in Malaysia, but after a career filled with peaks and valleys he’s far from announcing himself cured.
“If I found something in Malaysia I lost it at Quail Hollow,” he laughed, referencing his missed cut last week in Charlotte.
This is nothing new, and it’s the kind of perspective that only comes from a man who has enjoyed and endured both ends of the success scale.
“I'm experienced enough now to have patience and wait it out. I know what golf is like,” he said.
Indeed he does.
Westwood began the 2001 season ranked fifth in the World Golf Ranking and slowly, sometimes painfully, nosedived to 219th in the world by the time the 2003 season closed. His climb back atop the marquee was just as languid until he took over the top spot in late 2010.
So forgive him if he doesn’t get rattled by a winless 2013 and another arid spell. Or when he tunes out the predictable noise that surfaces each year when the major championship season arrives.
In case you hadn’t heard, Westwood is the consensus “Best player without a major.” He’s done everything else, claiming half of the single-season Runner-up Slam in 2010 (second at the Masters and Open Championship) and has added third-place finishes at the ’09 PGA Championship and ’11 U.S. Open.
Even golf’s faux fifth major has eluded him, with four top-10 finishes at The Players but still no title.
Perhaps Westwood takes solace in the process, like he does with his fairways-and-greens approach to the game (as an aside, he hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens on Thursday).
“He’s a very rational person which not everybody is,” said Walker, who figures Westwood turned the corner with his swing thanks to a cross-handed chipping drill at the Shell Houston Open.
Nor does Westwood seem all that interested in Europe’s pedestrian record at the PGA Tour’s flagship event. Just three Europeans have won The Players, which was first played in 1974, although two of those three (Sergio Garcia in 2008 and Henrik Stenson in ’09) have come since the event moved from March to May.
Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson: If you want to win the cup back have the PGA of America play the matches at TPC Sawgrass.
Part of this drought is the byproduct of inexperience and indifference. Westwood has played only six of the last 10 Players, and the two recent European victories have dovetailed with more of the continent’s players relocating to the United States.
“It’s not our style of golf,” said fellow Englishman Justin Rose, who is tied with Westwood at 5 under par. “We don’t grow up on Bermuda grass and the whole stadium type golf is not something we’re used to, so it’s probably that we’re not as confident here.”
But then confidence has never been an issue with Westwood, through good times and bad. Throughout it all, from the world’s top ranking to No. 219, he’s maintained his ballstriking superiority and his distinctly subtle sense of humor.
“I’m writing your lines for you now,” he joked with the media after another one-liner on Thursday.
He always has – another collapse, another comeback, another chance to claim that missing major, be it faux or otherwise.