WENTWORTH, England — It was the perfect scenario: a playoff between the two best players in the world. At stake: world No. 1 status, the BMW PGA Championship title and $1 million. To Lee Westwood, the water at 18. To Luke Donald, the spoils. Sport at its finest. Fabulous drama.
“Being No. 1 feels fantastic,” Donald said after being soaked in champagne by old friends. He wrapped a thick white towel around his shoulders like a boxer after a heavyweight bout, which, in golfing terms, is what he had just endured.
“I’ve been runner-up a few times in my career, but to come through in these circumstances in one of the biggest tournaments in the world, going head-to-head with Lee for the No. 1 ranking was pretty special,” Donald said. “Not sure that will happen again. Unique history has been made. It will be great to tell the grandchildren one day that I was the best player in the world.”
Record crowds trooped around Wentworth to watch Westwood and Donald battle it out for top honors in a very English affair, but it was certainly no tea and scones on the lawn. It was a wild West Course shootout in a gusting 30 mile-per-hour wind between the two fastest gunslingers in town.
Donald said early in the week that he was the best player in the world. Westwood set out to put his closest rival in his place. He had been unusually low-key all week. Gone was the Twitter banter. Gone was the wisecracking in the media center. Westwood went about closing an eight-shot gap after the first round by speaking softly but carrying a big stick — and a molten putter.
Westwood stayed out of the headlines all week. “Lurking,” he called it. He kept his thoughts to himself about Ernie Els’s controversial re-design of the West Course. He said nothing when Ian Poulter jumped on his soapbox to criticize the course. He held his tongue when Donald prematurely promoted himself up golf’s pecking order. And Westwood almost won it.
But give credit to Donald. He is in the form of his life. He talked himself up and then delivered. He didn’t panic when Westwood went on a golden run of five birdies between the fourth and 15th holes. After starting with two bogeys Sunday, Donald plodded along with pars and birdies at No. 4 and No. 10 until his patience was rewarded. Bogey for Westwood at 16. Birdie for Donald. Two-shot swing.
And then the playoff at the controversial 18th. Wayward drive by Westwood, imperious up-and-down from 110 yards by Donald. Watery grave for Westwood. A new world order established.
After all the flak Els has taken about his re-design, the smug look of self-satisfaction was hard to hide as he looked up at the names atop the leaderboard when he spoke after his round. He finished one over par and tied for 16th.
“The quality of the leaderboard is great. In most major championships the cream rises to the top, and that’s what’s happened here. They haven’t got into the mud-throwing match,” Els said of Westwood and Donald. “They’ve just applied themselves to playing golf on a very tough course. To see the two best players in the world slug it out at the flagship event on our tour is very special.”
Els saw the end result as vindication for his course re-design, but he still has unfinished business with Poulter.
“It’s difficult not to take it personally,” Els said. “A guy double-bogeys the last, he doesn’t hit the right shot, and then he blames the golf course for his bad shots. I don’t take that lightly. We’ll have a word when it’s suitable, when he’s calmed down a little bit and maybe reflects on the week.
“He’s done a lot of damage to the flagship event,” Els continued. “He’s a Ryder Cup player, and to come out with things like that is uncalled for. He should think twice when he does that. You should maybe take 10 minutes after you’ve done a double. I’ve done the same and it is difficult to keep your composure. He obviously lost his composure.”
Poulter may want to take along some of his 1.2 million Twitter followers next time Els asks him for a quiet chat down a dark alley.
Colin Montgomerie emerged from a career dark alley with his first top 10 in three years, finishing T7 at one under par. Matteo Manassero was again channeling the spirit of his idol Seve Ballesteros in the final round Sunday, dressed in Kermit green trousers, white shirt, navy sweater and white shoes — just like his idol Seve at the British Open in 1988. But it wasn’t the 18-year-old’s day. He failed to eke out a single birdie in a round of 75 to also finish at one under par.
Westwood went to Wembley Stadium in London on the eve of the final round to witness possibly the world’s greatest-ever club soccer team, Barcelona, strut its stuff against Manchester United in Europe’s Champions League final. He then set about making his own statement of sporting brilliance. But Donald had other ideas and a fire in his belly to make his own place in the history of the game. “I’ve been knocking on the door,” Donald said.
The door just opened.