VIRGINIA WATER, England — Lee Westwood is poised to win the biggest tournament of his career. The former World No. 1 has won 39 times around the world but has never kissed the BMW PGA Championship trophy, the flagship event of the European Tour. His only two tournament wins that compare, he said, are the 2009 Dubai World Championship, when he bullied Rory McIlroy into submission to win the money list, and the 1997 Australian Open, when he beat Greg Norman in a playoff.
Westwood, who turned 40 last month, shot a five-under-par 67 Saturday to take him to eight under par. He is just one shot off the lead held by Spain's Alejandro Canizares, the son of Ryder Cup star Jose-Maria.
Twenty-year-old Matteo Manaserro is seven under, Shane Lowry is six under, while the group on five under includes Sergio Garcia, Francesco and Edoardo Molinari and Westwood's mate from home Mark Foster.
"That was one of the most fun days I've ever had on a golf course," Westwood said reveling in the adoration of the huge galleries that welcomed him home to England. "They must have missed me now that I live in Florida."
Westwood's short game, for so long his glaring weakness, has been transformed during intensive practice in the Florida sunshine.
"Even Johnny Miller last week said something about my short game. I nearly fell over," Westwood said with a laugh. "When people like that recognize that you've put in some hard work and it's paid off, it's always a confidence booster."
Having moved his family to the United States to improve his chances in the majors, the point wasn't lost on Westwood that his first victory as a U.S. resident might come back on home soil.
"Ha, it would be ironic, wouldn't it?" he said. "Always feel like I play pretty well around here. So it wouldn't surprise me, but I'm still far from holding the trophy up."
Westwood has had four top 10s here, including a second-place finish to Colin Montgomerie in 2000 and losing a playoff to Luke Donald in 2011 that also decided who would be the new World No. 1.
Westwood is all too aware that he has had top 10s this year on the PGA Tour, too, but has failed to convert any into a victory. He rattled off Houston, Los Angeles, the Masters, the Players Championship and Quail Hollow as tournaments that he felt he had a good chance to win.
"I just didn't finish them off on the last day," he said.
He has another chance Sunday.
Just for a while, Westwood and Foster were threatening to turn the BMW PGA Championship into the Worksop Club Championship. The two mates from the same club in the unfashionable town in Middle England were vying for the lead — until Foster dropped four shots in three holes from the 14th.
Just for a while, Manassero's countrymen, the Molinari Brothers, were threatening to turn this event into "The Italian Job." Francesco led at eight under par; Edoardo was seven under. Then they had a "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off," moment. Frankie dropped five shots in three holes from the 7th; Dodo double bogeyed the par-3 14th. But they are both still within touching distance of the bullion, the $1 million first prize.
Perhaps the most surprising name on the leaderboard is that of Garcia. On Wednesday morning, after a sleepless night, he harbored thoughts of withdrawing following the furor that hit the world of golf after his fried-chicken joke aimed at Tiger Woods at a gala dinner on Tuesday. Now he has the opportunity of a tilt at the title. His focus, he said, is getting better every day.
"There's no doubt the crowds have made it so much easier for me," Garcia said. "I don't have words to explain what I feel towards them. They have been amazing, every single tee, every single green, cheering me on. Lee [Westwood] told me that he doesn't think he has ever heard a roar like that for anyone going to the first tee. I can never pay them back. It's been a tough week. Hopefully end it on a high note."
Garcia believed if the lead stayed around nine under par, he still had a chance to win. He's just four shots adrift of Canizares who leads at nine under.
"Who knows what might happen? I can't see the future," Garcia said. "If I could, I wouldn't be in this problem."
The problem of course is that one slip of the tongue that he will have to live with for the rest of his life. It was still a hot topic here coming into the weekend. Montgomerie described Garcia's fried-chicken controversy and European Tour chief executive George O'Grady's use of the term "colored" as a "mountain out of a molehill."
"We're frightened to open our mouths in case we say something that isn't kosher in 2013," Montgomerie said. "George says 'colored,' somebody says 'black,' but who is to say who is right and wrong?"