TURNBERRY, Scotland Who on earth did Lee Westwood upset at the R&A to get paired with Tiger Woods and Ryo Ishikawa? On Thursday, Westwood was stuck in the middle of the circus that constantly stalks Woods and Ishikawa, a Japanese teen idol. It was like a photographers' convention out there on the links.
"How tempted were you to put Monty out with the Woods and Ishikawa group and all those cameras?" was a cheeky question put to the R&A's Peter Dawson. "There are many factors you take into account when you put a group together," Dawson replied, stifling a grin that indicated there was no way that Monty and his ultra-sensitive ears would have been tossed into all that hullabaloo.
That's probably why the unflappable, laid-back and mellow Westwood got to play Lee in the Middle of this stellar threeball. The last time Westwood teed it up with Woods in a major was in the final round of the 2008 U.S. Open. Westwood missed a putt on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines that would have put him in the Monday playoff with Woods and Rocco Mediate.
"For a couple of days afterwards, 'what if' goes through your head," he said. "I could have been U.S. Open champion, but I proved to myself, and a few others, that there is a major in me."
Westwood has failed to win in either 2008 or 2009, but he arrived at Turnberry back in the Top 20 of the World Ranking. He's regaining his form, having finished tied for eighth at last week's Scottish Open and second the week before in a playoff with Martin Kaymer in the French Open.
"It never really bothers me that I haven't won for a while," he said. "Golf's like that. You never know when your next win is going to come."
Westwood said he has no fears of sharing the spotlight with Woods. He is, remember, one of Europe's Ryder Cup veterans, and he thrives on playing to a boisterous crowd.
"I love it when there is a big, noisy crowd that gets into the tournament," Westwood said. "It creates a great atmosphere. That's why playing in the Ryder Cup is so great. But you can be noisy and well-behaved. I expected it to be busy out there. It gave me a nice chance to practice my Japanese."
Westwood said that he had to back off a couple of shots to wait for the noise to die down, but he praised Tiger for his sportsmanlike behavior amid all the chaos.
"I get on well with Tiger; I think there's mutual respect," he said. "He always waits to hole out last if he can because he is aware of all the crowd movement. He doesn't use the crowd against you."
If there were any early nerves from Westwood, they didn't show. He birdied the first three holes before missing a four-footer for birdie at the fourth. He got to four under par before a double bogey at the 16th knocked him back to two under for the day. But Westwood was happy enough.
"I had a lot of chances from 15 to 20 feet," he said. "A 68 is right in there."
The 17-year-old Ishikawa was understandably nervous, but he was bold enough to sport blue plaid trousers that could have been Ian Poulter's rejects not loud enough.
In Japan, Ishikawa is called Hanikami Oji, the Bashful Prince. Make that the Bash-It Prince. He thrashed away off the tees while Woods and Westwood played for position.
"He hit a lot of drivers when Tiger hit 2-irons," Westwood said. "He's only 17. He'll learn."
But his strategy, or lack thereof, was still effective. His two-under 68 matched Westwood and beat his hero, Woods, by three shots.
Ishikawa's command of English is shaky, so after a few brief quotes ("really very nervous to play with Tiger and Lee") he disappeared beneath a scrum of Japanese reporters and photographers.