LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP) – He is No. 3 in the world, looks to have the ideal game for Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and former champions are lining up to make him their tip for the British Open.
So, can Lee Westwood finally win his first major this week after so many painful near misses?
“I've contended most weeks and given myself a chance, so I don't see any reason why this week should be any different,'' Westwood said Tuesday.
That's certainly what Tony Jacklin and Gary Player, winners here in 1969 and '74, think. Three-time major winner Ernie Els, and Europe Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal also believe Westwood's time has arrived.
It's easy to understand why.
Westwood is one of the straightest, cleanest ball-strikers around. That accuracy off the tee will be a major weapon around a links course that has more than 200 bunkers and thick rough that is brutal and at times unplayable.
The Englishman has also been a contender so often at majors – two runner-up finishes, two thirds and four fourths – that surely his luck must change and be due a victory at some stage. He has 14 top-20 finishes, and only one player – Harry Cooper between 1925 and 1938 – has matched that record without winning a major.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he is a more mature character these days and is confident in his own game, having climbed to No. 1 for the first time last year.
“I think I've gotten more relaxed and just sort of played and let the cards fall where they may, really,'' Westwood said. “I don't find myself pressing particularly harder.
“I know my game is good enough to win when I play well enough, play with everything together. So that's what I try to do.''
Westwood, who is still without regular caddie Billy Foster because of injury, chose to skip last week's Scottish Open – the warmup event for the British Open – and instead played a course in his home town of Worksop with his father.
Westwood carried his own bag, even raked the bunkers himself.
If that was a sure signal that a groin problem that hampered him at the French Open two weeks ago is no longer an issue, doubts still remain about the one supposed weakness in his arsenal – his short game.
The general consensus is that if he was a better putter, he wouldn't still be without a major title after 57 attempts.
“I don't think you can get to No. 1 in the world without much of a short game,'' Westwood said. “I think the thing with professional golf is you're an individual, so you're lined up there for people to have a look at your game and take criticisms.
“(Top-ranked) Luke Donald's strengths are from 80 yards in. My strengths are tee to green. But you've got to understand that people are going to have strengths, and people are going to have weaknesses, and you can't be the best in the world at everything, otherwise you'd be miles in front.''
There may be a surfeit of bunkers at Lytham but at least there's a distinct lack of trees.
Westwood's last charge at a major title, at the U.S. Open last month, was brought to a halt on the fifth hole in his final round when a far-from-wayward drive hit a tree and stayed in the branches. He was three shots off the lead held by Jim Furyk at the time and ended up finishing tied for 10th.
“Yeah, that shouldn't be a problem this week,'' Westwood said. “If you hit it down the middle, there's generally no trees down the middle, so that's my plan.''
Westwood plays with Masters champion Bubba Watson and Yoshinori Fujimoto in his first two rounds.