Sunday’s Woods-Westwood showdown brings a touch of Ryder Cup drama to the U.S. Open

June 15, 2008

With England’s Lee Westwood and Team USA’s Tiger Woods playing in the final group, U.S. Open Sunday might look a lot like a Ryder Cup singles showdown.

And what a turnaround for Westwood. He plummeted from fourth in the world to beyond the top 250 during a four-year winless streak. But he fought back to No. 20 in the world and now has his best shot at a major title.

“I’m no quitter,” Westwood said after his third-round 70, which left him at two-under for the tournament, one stroke behind leader Woods. “I’d like to get back to at least where I was before in the world rankings.”

He tees off Sunday from a place he’s never been before — in the final group of a major, in the company of Tiger Woods. “I’m not bothered about playing with Tiger. You’ve got to play with someone,” Westwood said with a laugh. “The American crowd will mainly be on Tiger’s side, but that’s understandable. That won’t bother me. I’m used to being in these positions. I’ve played in five Ryder Cups and won 29 tournaments.”

Westwood came to Torrey Pines with no expectations, having withdrawn from the BMW PGA Championship in England last month suffering from tonsillitis. He’s had two weeks to recover and admitted he hardly hit any balls before the championship.

History is against Westwood: No English player has won a major since Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters. And no Brit has won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But here are some statistics Westwood will like better. His waist size has shrunk in one year from 40 to 34 inches, and he’s added some 12 yards to his drives. His revival owes much to working hard on the range and in the gym.

“And spitting out all the things that taste nice, like crisps, biscuits, chocolate and booze,” he said. “I really do feel I’ve turned a corner. It’s like a second career is about to start.”

This second career stars a longer, stronger Westwood. The 35-year-old Englishman’s XXL drives have averaged 296 yards this week, six yards further than the field average. He has found 60 percent of the fairways (25 out of 42), which has allowed him to hit a whopping 63 percent (34 of 54) of greens in regulation.

Winning the numbers game is all well and good, but the only statistic that counts is finishing one shot ahead of the field on Sunday, which Westwood has not yet done in a major. His best finish in the American championship is a tie for fifth in 2000.

“Patience is the name of the game at the U.S. Open,” Westwood said. “It can be fairly boring, but you just have to go out there and grind out pars. And I’m quite happy to do that.”

He was quite happy reeling off seven pars in a row to start his third round while those around him traded birdies and bogies. The plan for Sunday? More of the same.

“I believe I have the game to win a major,” Westwood said before the U.S. Open. “I just want to get into contention once or twice and see what happens. It would be nice for people to say, ‘Oh yeah, he was good. Whenever he had a chance to win, he generally won. He had the balls for it.'”