"Sorry, Westy," Tiger Woods said to Lee Westwood, patting him on the back as they passed each other Sunday evening near the interview podium behind the 18th green at Torrey Pines. While Woods went off to prepare for his Monday playoff, Westwood was whisked away by his manager Chubby Chandler, who had a helicopter on standby to take him to the airport for his flight home to England.
"Tiger is amazing," Westwood said. "He is obviously struggling with his knee, but he still finds a way to get it 'round."
While Westwood matched Tiger on Sunday with a 73, he fell one shot short of the playoff with Woods and Rocco Mediate. That would be a potentially crushing disappointment for many golfers. But not for Westwood. The 35-year-old's third-place Open finish is a major step forward in a remarkable comeback.
"I feel a bit sick not to make the playoff," Westwood said Sunday, "but my performance this week shows me that I can win a major. And I am delighted with how my short game held up under pressure, and I am pleased with myself. I felt pretty calm out there, a little bit nervous, a few butterflies, but I thought I stuck in there well. It is just very fine margins. It gives me great confidence looking forward to the next few majors and to [British Open site] Birkdale. It is my first real attempt at being in contention to win a major, and so to come up just one short was pretty good."
While his U.S. Open showing was his strongest major statement to date, Westwood is no stranger to staring down Woods on a big stage. He has beaten Tiger five times in Ryder Cup team matches (they have never played each other in singles), and he gave the World No. 1 a two-shot head start in the final round of the 2000 Deutsche Bank Open in Germany before posting a 64 to win. "I'm no quitter," he said at Torrey Pines.
Quitting would have been easy for Westwood a few years ago. After peaking at No. 4 in the world, he fell into a four-year slump in which he failed to add to his 27 worldwide victories, and plummeted outside the top 250 in the world rankings. He bounced back in 2007, winning twice on the European Tour and was one of only seven players to make the cut in all four majors. He tied for 11th at this year's Masters and came to Torrey ranked 21st in the world.
Westwood's resurgence came after he recommitted to his game, changing his diet and pumping iron in the gym. "I really do feel I've turned a corner," Westwood said in a recent interview with Golf Magazine. "It's like a second career is about to start."
The slimmer, trimmer Westwood also credits two gurus for helping breathe new life into his game: Putting instructor Paul Hurrion and European Tour player and short-game expert Mark Roe.
Hurrion, who helped Padraig Harrington win last year's British Open, runs a now-legendary putting laboratory in England. Putting is all about confidence, and Westwood had lost his on the greens. Hurrion helped his charge stop second-guessing himself and return to the pre-shot routine that was so successful for the Brit in the late 1990s.
Guru No. 2 Roe spotted a flaw in Westwood's chipping at the 2007 British Open and offered his services. "Chipping has always been my weakness, but he's given me a lot more variety around the greens," Westwood said. "It's spread through my whole game. If you have confidence getting up and down, you can be more aggressive to fire at flags. You feel like you've not got no weakness in your game."
He'll carry that newfound confidence to Birkdale next month, where he might get another shot at Woods. How does he rate his game against Tiger? "We all know that if he has his best day and I have my best day," says the always-candid Westwood, "he's probably going to beat me."