Saturday 24 February 2018

Destiny calls for Westwood

Englishman primed to join illustrious band of past champions, writes Ewan Murray

A cursory glance at the illustrious list of Open champions at Royal Lytham & St Annes merely serves to amplify the scale of the task facing this year's competitors. The Lancashire links has never proved a venue for freak, or fluke, victories. Seve Ballesteros claimed two Claret Jugs in the red rose county. Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke and Gary Player have also tasted success there. David Duval, following a spell when he was the hottest player in golf, was the victor at Lytham back in 2001.

Those notes of history contradict more recent major results. Graeme McDowell's US Open win in 2010 started a run which has seen nine first-time champions of golf's most prominent individual events. The distinctly youthful appearance of that list is contradicted only by the then 42-year-old Darren Clarke's exploits at Royal St George's.

Lee Westwood may well have been inspired by Clarke's success but has been questioned so many times about his own failure to collect a major that the topic is starting to grate. The Englishman will not be spared such chatter in the coming days: Lytham & St Annes is set up perfectly for someone of Westwood's ball-striking talent.

Westwood has seemingly recovered from the injury he sustained at the recent French Open. An inability to claim a major would cause more meaningful -- and mental -- damage to a player who has been let down on the big stage by putting woes. Nobody in professional sport wants the tag of perennial bridesmaid.

"Lee really has paid his dues," says Ernie Els. "If there is one man that deserves one, it's him. It reminds me a lot of Colin Montgomerie, a guy who will probably go into the golf hall fame but hasn't won a major."

That Montgomerie comparison is the very one Westwood is seeking to avoid. An otherwise illustrious golf career would almost be worthy of an asterisk beside it -- in the minds of the public, at least -- if not endorsed by at least one major win. "I wouldn't say Lee is running out of time," Els says.

"He's as strong as an ox, he's working and doing all the right things. It just hasn't fallen his way for other reasons. Lytham is a ball striker's dream, and Lee is a ball striker."

Beyond that, the devil is in the Lytham detail, and the 206 bunkers in particular. "You have to be careful around there," adds Els. "It's well-bunkered. As well bunkered as anything I've played."

Given the Ballesteros link to Lytham, Jose Maria Olazabal has special cause to be disappointed at not qualifying for this Open. Europe's Ryder Cup captain will be forced to take only a close watching brief as the naming of his team for Medinah draws closer. Still, Olazabal denies any suggestion he will place extra significance in the mental approach of players at major championships. "If those guys are thinking that they have to play well to make the team they are always under pressure, it doesn't matter if it's a major or not," the Spaniard insists.

Olazabal also rejects the theory only certain major venues are a perfect match for Westwood's style of golf. "Any course suits Lee Westwood. It just comes down to his putting which is maybe his only weakness," says Olazabal. "But from tee to green he's as solid as a player can be.

"When we talk about a links course the range of players who can win is bigger than at any other major event. We saw that at Turnberry with Tom Watson, you need to position the ball, not bomb it. It's a matter of hitting good shots, being consistent and that will give you a chance to win the Open. In that regard there is a bunch of guys including the usual suspects who hit the ball steady like Luke Donald and Francesco Molinari. That kind of player obviously suits that type of tournament and golf course."

The reality is that the strength of the Open field renders it extremely difficult to deduce from a group of around 30 players who will emerge as the winner. Olazabal acknowledges that much. "You look at the way players are prepared and how consistent they are, anyone can win," he says. "The level is so good that in any given week anyone can win so it's very hard to make a shortlist of possible winners. The equipment is the same for everyone so you can't put the rise in standard down to that. It comes down to how much work you put in and if you go into the gym you'll see players working their asses off.

"They have mental coaches and spend hours on the range or the putting green. No matter how big the range is it is always full of players spending hours working on their game. So give credit to the players."

The ultimate level of acclaim will be bestowed on one individual in a week's time. Entering the pantheon of golfing greats by winning an Open is worthy enough, to do so at Royal Lytham & St Annes has special merit given all that has gone before.


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