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Westwood riding hot putter into Muirfield mix through 36

Lee Westwood
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GULLANE, Scotland – Lee Westwood marched to the scorer’s trailer on Friday with a pleased look on his face. Not even a final-hole bogey could sour his mood.

For one thing, he was done. His 3-under 68 in increasingly difficult conditions at Muirfield vaulted him up the ’board, right into the thick of this championship, just one shot off the lead.

Another reason he was delighted: Over the weekend, this 142nd British Open figures to turn into a ball-striking competition, or at least a contest of which players’ pure strikes can best hold the baked-out greens. And in that tussle, Westwood likes his chances. With 13 clubs, he’s lethal.

The key, as always, is how his 14th club behaves.

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Thus, the biggest reason for his post-round satisfaction Friday.

For years he has been a mechanical man with the flatstick. He stood over the ball and choked the life out of his putter, a motion that was heavy on technique and light on feel. That, along with his vastly improved chipping and pitching action, has kept the 40-year-old in a 0-for-career major slump.

Two weeks ago, however, he sought help from Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open winner-turned-CBS Sports analyst. They are neighbors and occasional practice-round partners at Old Palm in South Florida, and during their one-hour putting session there was a “light-bulb moment,” Westwood said.

Grip the putter lighter.

Loosen everything up.

Putt like a kid – free and easy.

And through two rounds here at Muirfield, it seems to have worked.

“I’m really happy for him,” Baker-Finch told from his home in South Florida. “He looked very comfortable on the greens the last two days. He’s much more relaxed with what he’s been working on.”

Through 36 holes, Westwood is hitting fewer than 60 percent of the fairways and greens – both worse than the field average – which would normally signal trouble. Not this week, however. Not when his putter, of all things, is keeping him in this Open.

On Friday he rode that hot flatstick to a blistering start – 6 under through 12 holes and into a share of the lead. He dropped three shots coming home – and so, too, will many in the field – but his 2-under 140 left him one shot behind heading into the weekend.

“I always seem to putt these greens well,” Westwood said afterward. “I got a couple of tips on getting tension out of my arms and having a bit more control. I’m getting it on-line nicely, and I’ve gauged the pace of the greens as well.”

Indeed, over the ball he looks like he’s gripping a putter, not a jackhammer. His 55 putts through two rounds – including just 26 on Friday – represent great progress, as do his 18 one-putt greens.

Though he missed putts inside 10 feet on Nos. 13 and 18, down the stretch he drilled the putts he absolutely had to make to keep his low round afloat.

A 6-footer for par on 14.

A 5-footer for par on 16.

A 10-footer for par on 17.

“He knows how to putt,” said Baker-Finch, who this week has kept in touch with Westwood via phone calls and texts. “He’s won 30 or 40 tournaments around the world, and you have to be able to putt to do that. I haven’t taught him how to putt; I’ve just reinforced some things that he may have deviated from. It’s helped him simplify his thought process under pressure.”

While watching the coverage at home, Baker-Finch said he’s more interested in watching how Westwood reacts to missed putts than made ones.

“There wasn’t a look of fear or inevitability or a here-we-go-again type of look,” Baker-Finch said. “It was a look of, ‘That’s OK, I made a good stroke. Let’s go to the next.’

“That means he’s comfortable, and he knows that over the ball he feels more relaxed and capable of making a good stroke. He’s not hoping to hole it. He’s expecting to hole it.”

Westwood may not recall the last time he felt so comfortable on the greens – “I don’t know, I go through spells where I’m feeling confident,” he said – but his performance at least caught the attention of one of his fellow playing competitors.

“Lee definitely surprised me,” Charl Schwartzel said. “I thought he putted beautifully. The putts that he needed to make, he has made. That’s been the difference with him so far – he’s made a whole bunch of par putts that just keep the momentum.

“You can see the way he’s walking and the way he’s playing. He’s definitely a danger, man.”

This time, with all of the 14 clubs in his bag.