JOHN’S CREEK, Ga. — England’s Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are the World’s No. 1 and No. 2 players, but they are kidding themselves thinking they can win the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club this week.
OK, it’s not that the major-less duo don’t believe they can carry off the giant Wanamaker trophy (hoisting that 27-pound trophy is a physical test in itself), but their plan is to throw off the extra pressures of a major championship by pretending it’s just another tournament.
It’s a mental trick that’s easier to talk about than actually pull off, and another tactic in these guys’ increasingly desperate campaigns to get over the major hump at “glory’s last shot,” as the PGA of America calls the final major of the season. Only one Englishman has ever won this championship and that was Jim Barnes at the very first one in 1916 and again in 1919.
Westwood, 38, has gotten so fed up trying to convert his close major finishes into a victory that he has finally overcome his cynicism to seek solace in a sports psychologist. He chose one with a pretty decent track record. Dr. Bob Rotella has helped major winners Padraig Harrington and, most recently, Darren Clarke, fulfill their potential.
With so many near-misses, Westwood is currently the holder of that most unwanted moniker of Best Player Never To Have Won A Major.
“I suppose it’s a compliment in a way,” Westwood said with a smile. “It’s good to be good at something.” The brooding Westwood who turned up at Royal St George’s last month and looked suffocated by pressure to perform well in England has been replaced in Atlanta by a jolly jokester. At the British Open, Rotella got Clarke to play “unconscious,” and Westwood is following similar advice.
“A lot more light-hearted and relaxed,” Westwood said. “Try to play the tournament like I don’t really care. Like Greg Norman used to say you are trying 100 percent while not having a care in the world.”
Westwood was in terrific form holding court Tuesday morning. He joked about entering the Olympics as a weightlifter after shedding 9 lbs in the gym. He poked fun at his manager Chubby Chandler when it was pointed out that the Chubby Slam was possible if one of his players can follow up the victories of Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Rory McIlroy (U.S. Open) and Darren Clarke (British Open).
“I’m not impressed with his preparation, and he doesn’t function well in the heat,” Westwood said of his Happy Buddha agent. “He drinks a lot, but not water. Unless you count tonic water.”
After years of putting too much pressure on himself, Westwood is now trying not to try at all.
“Laugh it off and have fun,” he said. “That’s the mentality I’m trying to get back to. I’m just playing like my son stood over a 10-foot putt at the Par 3 contest at the Masters-and it rolled in.”
But behind all this “embracing your inner child” stuff, Westwood surely knows in his head and heart that this is a major and a chance to him make history, right?
“People make it something that it’s not. It’s only four rounds of golf,” Westwood said of the majors. “This week is no different to the Indonesian Masters.”
Who’s he trying to kid? Ah yes, himself.
Donald empathizes with his countryman and agreed that he, too, had been guilty of putting too much pressure on himself at major championships.
“I definitely understand it,” Donald said. “Majors are made out to be the biggest deal. People put a lot of pressure on the guys that haven’t won, like Lee and me. Sometimes you can just try too hard.”
Donald said he plans to lighten the mental load this week by whistling over his putts, something he tried last week when he finished tied second at the Bridgestone Invitational. Don’t worry, playing partners; Donald will be only whistling on the inside.
“It’s just an inner whistle to myself, probably one of [daughter] Elle’s nursery rhymes,” he said.
But Donald, unlike Westwood, admitted he finds it hard to pretend not to care.
“You can try to trick yourself, but there’s a little added tension, a bit more anxiety to perform well,” Donald said. “It’s a bigger stage. It’s harder to play it like a normal event. It’s a fine line between trying less and trying too hard. I will always feel something is missing if I don’t win one.”
Meanwhile, Clarke is struggling to replicate the form that finally won him his first major last month.
“My expectations are pretty even keel,” he said sounding like a skipper who wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his boat sink without trace by the weekend. Clarke admitted that he still felt tired and was looking forward to a couple of weeks off. He is clearly physically and mentally still suffering from a Royal St George’s hangover.
But the party looks certain to rave on as Clarke celebrates his 43rd birthday on Sunday. Just imagine the mayhem if he could win back-to-back majors. “I may go AWOL for a few days like I did last time,” Clarke said laughing.
Unlike Westwood and Donald, you know Clarke isn’t kidding.