AUGUSTA, Ga. Lee Westwood tiptoed into Augusta National last month to play a sneaky early practice round and to exorcise the ghosts of 2010. Twelve months ago Westwood signed for a total of 275 shots, 13 under par. It was a score that would have won 20 of the previous 25 Masters and gotten him into a playoff for two more. Unfortunately the Englishman came up short against Phil Mickelson playing Harry Houdini golf and lost by three shots.
"Three years ago, my short-game was a four, last year it was probably a seven and now it's an eight or even a nine," Westwood said. "It's certainly good enough to win at Augusta. Mind you, it was last year. The only trouble is it came up against a man with a short game of 11."
Westwood endured a close-up view of Mickelson's extraordinary back nine, which included that shot from the pine needles on 13.
"It was probably the shot of the year under the circumstances," Westwood said. "I was about 30 yards behind him on that side of the fairway. I had walked out to see what was happening. They were taking a while. I think Bones [Jim Mackay, Mickelson's caddie] was trying to talk him out of it so I just wandered forward.
"I knew from the reaction of the fans that he'd be having a go at it," Westwood continued. "That's Phil's personality and game. He's that kind of player. That's why the fans love to watch him play. ... When it was in the air I saw it was on line with the flag and I thought there is no way that could carry. I am still amazed that it could carry on that line. Phil just had a special day."
Westwood was runner-up at the British Open, too, at St. Andrews in July. The 37-year-old World No. 2 has won 32 tournaments around the world (including two on the PGA Tour), but he is now 0 for 51 in the major championships and the current owner of that most-unwanted moniker, Best Player Never To Have Won A Major. Mickelson knows all about dragging that monkey around. This year's Masters favorite went 0 and 47 before breaking through at the 2004 Masters.
"Well, that was seven years ago. You need to let that go," Mickelson said laughing, when reminded of his early failures. He sympathizes with Westwood and knows what it is like to live with the frustrations of years of near misses and trying to grab that elusive first major.
"I understand where Lee is at, and he's been the No. 1 player in the world," Mickelson said. "His game is at such a high level right now that it is just a matter of time."
That response echoed what Westwood revealed Mickelson said to him in the scorer's hut behind the 18th green last year: "Just keep doing what you're doing and it will happen for you sooner or later."
Just a few years ago, Westwood stomped off the course and declared he had fallen out of love with Augusta National. The love returned after last year's performance.
"What they have done to the course in the past two years has vindicated what I said," Westwood said. "One of the great things about the Masters when I was growing up was those back-nine charges and hearing the roars when people made eagles. Like when Jack Nicklaus shot 30 in 1986. I just thought the course was getting so severe that we were losing that."
But the more Westwood plays the Augusta National course, the more comfortable he feels on it.
"There is nothing like a good performance to create a good feeling," Westwood said. "Before last year I never felt I had the hang of it. After last year I do. I feel I have a good chance at all the major venues. It is just a matter of peaking at the right time."
Unfortunately, Westwood's putter wasn't peaking in the final round of the Shell Houston Open last week. He hit 12 out of 14 fairways and 15 out of 18 greens on Sunday, but the new putter he put into play was ice-cold. Which is why he spent 90 minutes on the putting green with his father Monday evening.
"I've been struggling with my alignment," he said. "It feels and looks a lot better. I'm getting quite confident now."
Westwood will play the first two rounds in the company of Martin Kaymer and Matt Kuchar. His partners are perfect examples of how patience will eventually reap rewards. Patience, or rather a lack of it, has at times been Westwood's downfall. Westwood knows it, too, and he admits it is the biggest lesson he has learned in 11 appearances at the Masters.
"I've always been fairly aggressive and fired at a lot of flags," he said. "Probably more than I should have. It is a golf course where you have to be very strategic and play patiently. You learn it fairly quickly.
"But, if you are stupid, like me, sometimes it takes a while to sink in," he added.
The trouble with Augusta, though, is that nothing is quite that simple. Patience on the course was hardly what won the 2010 Masters for Mickelson.
"Augusta is like a jigsaw," Westwood said. "You are tying to put the pieces in one at a time, building from the edges and working to the middle. You can't just go straight to the middle."
Starting Thursday, Westwood will find out if all his pieces are finally starting to fit.