Is this the year Westwood breaks through?
Lytham St. Annes, England - Lee Westwood bypassed the Scottish Open last week to get an early look at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which he now calls a "genius move" with all the rain that has dumped on the British Open venue this week.
"It was nice weather and there was hardly anybody out there," Westwood said Tuesday. "It was one of the best Open Championship practices I've ever had."
Perhaps the change of routine will bring a long-sought change of fortune.
During the past 4½ years, no one has been so continually close to a major title without breaking through. Seven of those 18 majors have found the English pro no worse than fourth, including two runner-up finishes in 2010.
But no better than second, either. No wonder one British tabloid this week proclaimed him the "near-Lee man."
"I know my game is good enough to win when I play well enough," Westwood said. "After that, it's out of your hands."
This Open, though, might find him in a bigger spotlight. Royal Lytham's 206 bunkers demand precise shotmaking, and Westwood is one of the best ballstrikers in the game.
Among those touting him this week are former champions Tony Jacklin, Ernie Els and Gary Player.
"This should suit him down to the ground," said Jacklin, whose 1969 victory at Royal Lytham remains the Open's last English victory at an English venue. "It's a daunting task, but he's got all the experience in the world now and he's surely up for it."
Said ESPN analyst Andy North: "He might be as good as we have at hitting the ball solidly every single time."
But then the two-time U.S. Open champ added the kicker: "He's got to putt a little bit better. That's the bottom line."
Indeed, Westwood might already be a major winner - perhaps more than once - if he could sink a couple of 8-foot putts under the Sunday glare.
Only four players at the Masters took more putts over 72 holes, yet Westwood still finished just two shots out of the Bubba Watson-Louis Oosthuizen playoff. Just one stroke kept him out of the 2009 Open playoff between Stewart Cink and Tom Watson; one was the separation from the 2008 U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines.
"Technically he gets so involved in (putting)," North suggested, "sometimes he doesn't let the feel and the natural athlete within him come out."
Westwood hears the criticism and does his best to shrug it off. He's had two runs at No. 1 in the world rankings, after all, so his short game can't be all bad.
"I think my game suits most places," he said. "That's why I contend most weeks in major championships."
To his credit, the 39-year-old pro hasn't lost his sense of humor. Asked to name three places where a golfer doesn't want to be at Royal Lytham, he replied: "The bunkers would be one; the railway line would be another."
Westwood also noted that he'll be out of the country during the upcoming Olympics, so "I won't be available for security duties."
Nonetheless, everyone knows the clock is ticking. Only one player - "Lighthorse" Harry Cooper in the 1920s and '30s - can match Westwood's portfolio of 14 top-20 finishes in majors without winning one.
"I've contended most weeks and given myself a chance," Westwood said. "I don't see any reason why this week should be any different."
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