Undaunted by near misses in the majors, Lee Westwood heads back to Augusta

Undaunted by near misses in the majors, Lee Westwood heads back to Augusta

Focusing on his short game, Westwood improved his scrambling from 58th in 2009 to seventh last year.
Bob Martin/SI

Lee Westwood is seated at a table at Doral’s Bossa Nova Lounge, his golf shoes off. Soccer is being piped in from across the Atlantic. AC Milan against Tottenham Hotspur. In the beautiful game they don’t get much bigger. To Westwood’s right, two caddies. To his left, a pal, John Newton, who answers to Newt the Beaut. The conversation flows in every direction. The NFL. Motown. The Masters. It’s a good table.

“I went to see the Four Tops in Detroit during the [2004] Ryder Cup,” says Westwood, which prompts Newton to break into a Temptations song.

My giiiirl,” Newton begins.

“Talkin’ ’bout my giiiirl,” Westwood answers.

Westwood reaches under the table and grabs his right shoe, revealing a blue ­orthotic pad he has been testing since a muscle injury forced him out of last year’s PGA Championship. The injury interrupted one of the best runs in the ­majors in recent years but one of repeated near misses. In the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Westwood finished third, a shot out of the epic Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff. In ’09 Westwood had a pair of third-place ties — at the British Open, where a three-putt bogey at the last left him a shot out of the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff, and at the PGA. Last year at the Masters, Westwood had a share of the 36-hole lead, and even after Phil Mickelson’s eagle-eagle-birdie barrage on the back nine on Saturday, he took a one-shot lead into the final round. But Mickelson shot a near-flawless 67, highlighted by a shot off the pine needles at the 13th, to clip Westwood by three. Three months later he was again second in a major, this time to Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open at St. Andrews.

“Nobody really remembers second,” Westwood says. “I’ll remember who finished second in the Masters, but nobody else will. I’ve nearly won three or four majors now. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? It’s a shot a round. A very fine line.”

Westwood says this matter-of-factly, his face showing neither frustration nor joy. These are the terms of the deal. Only one man gets the green jacket, the claret jug. The others tally their scores and try to forget about the week’s lip-outs.

After Mickelson closed out last year’s Masters, he walked into the scorer’s room and saw the man he had just vanquished. Mickelson’s eyes were moist after a long embrace with his cancer-stricken wife, Amy. Westwood was dressed in the red and white of his favorite soccer club, Nottingham Forest.

Mickelson told Westwood that he was playing better than anyone in the world.

“He just said, ‘Keep going as you are, keep coming close, and one will roll your way sooner or later. Maybe more than one,’ ” Westwood recalls.

Does he know what it takes to get there? “Just improve everything slightly,” he says.

Westwood likens the margin between winning and second to a razor-blade’s edge, and an upbeat attitude will get him on the good side of that razor.

He returns his gaze to the soccer and picks at a chopped salad with chicken. A player for AC Milan smashes the ball toward the net. A Tottenham defender races over and kicks the ball away just as it is about to cross the goal line. Westwood lets out a yelp.

“Did they not score then?” he asks. “It’s got to be close to being over the line, isn’t it?”

Nearly. But the entire ball did not cross the plane. No goal. It’s a very fine line.

Lee is one of the few players in the world who can actually win tournaments on long game only,” says Pete Cowen, Westwood’s swing coach. “Vijay [Singh] did that at his best. He could win a tournament not putting well. Lee’s very similar to that.”

Cowen is standing in the 11th fairway at Doral, eyeballing his pupil. He is the essence of old school. Cowen played the European tour in the 1970s. After he belted a tee shot 40 yards past Gary Player at the Brazilian Open, Cowen sold the driver to Player for $100. Cowen took lessons from Gardner Dickinson because Dickinson took lessons from Ben Hogan.

“Hogan was my inspiration,” says Cowen, who also coaches Oosthuizen and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. “I read more of Hogan than anything. Lee understands Hogan, but you can lose yourself in that if you’re not careful. The main philosophy to understand was his work ethic.”

Westwood, who turns 38 on April 24, shares with Hogan the claim that he might be his era’s best ball striker. Westwood grew up in Worksop, England, a town of simple tastes and shuttered coal mines. At Worksop Golf Club, where Westwood learned to play, a golfer has to compress the ball, fully, off the cold earth for it to behave.

“It’s a sandy course with a lot of tight lies,” Westwood says. “You always had to have clean contact.”

Like Hogan, Westwood shares a long, dark period during which the game nearly deserted him. After reaching No. 4 in the world as a pudgy phenom in the late 1990s, his game began to slip, lost in a thicket of swing changes.

“It’s frustrating to go out on the range and you don’t see any improvement, and after three hours you actually feel worse than you did when you started,” Westwood says. “You’re looking down all avenues then. You’re trying to find an answer, and in the back of your mind is, I was fourth in the world. Why is it suddenly all gone? I asked a lot of people’s opinions — almost too many people’s opinions. I should have taken control a little bit more.”

Westwood nearly quit the game, but his pride wouldn’t let him. Stuart Cage, who was the best man at Westwood’s wedding, remembers a scene at the 2000 Masters, when Westwood’s game was already in retreat.

“He was still exempt, but on the way down,” Cage says. “He was on the putting green. Tiger had just played nine holes, and Lee walks over to the 10th tee to join him. Tiger was at the peak of his powers. Ninety-nine percent of the players would have gone in the opposite direction. Lee walked up knowing everybody was going to be watching and Tiger was going to be watching. He walked up to that tee and played. To me, that said a huge amount about Lee’s belief in himself.”

Woods finished fifth that week, and the following year he completed the Tiger Slam at the Masters. Westwood missed the cut, but the next year he was not exempt in any of the many categories and wasn’t invited back. By 2003 he had plummeted to No. 266 in the world.

Cowen compared the fall to a motorcyclist crashing onto the asphalt. “It takes balls to come back from that,” he says.

I knew we were in trouble when I saw him with a trainer in the gym a few years ago — that would have been very un-Westy-like in his early days,” says countryman Paul Casey.

Westwood’s friend is speaking of the ­golfer whose waistline ballooned to 40 inches before he began working out with a sports scientist, Stephen McGregor, in 2006. “He’s simply gone about it and dialed in every aspect of his game,” Casey adds. “He always had that killer instinct. [Now] you get a guy who has that killer instinct and a range and a gym at home.”

In Worksop, where he still lives, Westwood trains in the morning with McGregor in his home gym, and in the afternoon he and Cowen meet on the driving range that he built on part of the 51 acres he recently purchased behind his house. The workout regimen allows Westwood to better match the movements of a golf swing, or as Cowen says, getting the wrists, elbows and shoulders working in unison.

Many of the exercises focus on core strength and balance, and when Westwood makes a swing, it is a powerful move that he uses to relentlessly pound fairways.

The result: Last year Westwood climbed to No. 1 in the world, where he spent 17 weeks before Martin Kaymer replaced him following the Accenture Match Play Championship in February.

“I love Lee,” says Butch Harmon. The renowned coach is standing on the range at Doral. He has golfers all over the leader board at the Cadillac Championship. Butch shoots straight.

“I don’t think Lee dwells on finishing second in the majors, but you know it’s in the back of his mind,” Harmon says. “He’s made a phenomenal comeback, and I can’t imagine him ending his career without winning major championships. The one thing that holds him back is his pitching around the greens. I’d say he’s below average at a tour level, and I think that’s what hurts you the most at major championships because of the severity of the courses. On a day when you don’t have it, you have to rely on your short game to bail you out, and that’s what the Mickelsons, Woodses and Elses have. Short game is probably the only weak link in [Westwood’s] armor.”

The criticism is something that Westwood has heard time and again, but he views it as outdated. In 2009 he ranked 58th in scrambling on the European tour. Last year he was seventh.

“I’m a stat person,” Westwood says. “I’ve improved my short game a lot. Where I was a four or five before, I’d say now I’m probably a seven or eight. It’s not the best in the world, but it’s by no means the worst. I get it up and down pretty much when I should.”

Westwood is back on the course at Doral, finishing his practice round. He ascends the small knoll of the 17th tee box and looks down the fairway. Behind him, on the 3rd tee, there is a commotion. Woods, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose have just teed off, and hundreds of fans are in tow. Their swing coach, Sean Foley, is following along, his ever-present camera in hand.

“Should I bet on you this week, Lee?” a fan asks.

“Sure, why not?” Westwood answers back.

The fan seems satisfied with the reply, and Westwood sticks a peg in the ground. It’s a gorgeous day, the Masters is around the corner, and the soccer will be on soon.