Saturday 24 February 2018

Karl MacGinty: No better time for Westwood to break his Major duck

Lee Westwood
Lee Westwood

Karl MacGinty

WHAT is it with Major champions these days? Right now, not many of them seem able to beat their way out of a wet paper bag.

Last Sunday, for example, golf's most recent Major winner, Webb Simpson, imploded in truly spectacular fashion after easing himself to the brink of victory in the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia.

No disrespect to Ted Potter Junior (28) the left-handed PGA Tour rookie who emerged from a run of six missed cuts in his last seven tournaments to complete a heart-warming 'rags-to-riches' victory in sudden-death.

Nor to the man he beat with a sweet birdie on the third tie hole, World No 464 Troy Kelly (34), who has been swinging the club sweetly since having a hip replacement in September 2010.

For the second year in a row, Simpson (27) led into the back nine on Sunday at Greenbrier and ended up losing.

Last year, that chastening experience spurred Simpson to his first PGA Tour win a month later at the Wyndham, followed by the Deutsche Bank Championship in August, setting up his end-of-season head-to-head with Luke Donald for top spot on the US money list.

Simpson ploughed on into 2012, with victory in last month's US Open lifting him to No 5 in the world rankings -- which makes Sunday's collapse all the more shocking. Leading by two going into the final round, Simpson spurned a birdie chance or two on the front nine and was just one ahead of his dogged closest rival, Kelly, through the turn.

Greenbrier is entirely different to Olympic, where he literally had to grind for glory. Making birdies, and plenty of them, doesn't entirely fit Simpson's temperament.

Yet with his Major-winning experience, Simpson surely should have prevailed down the stretch against six rivals, none of whom had ever won on the PGA Tour -- especially when he arrived at the par-five 12th on the crest of 59 successive holes without bogey.

Yet a three-putt six there shattered the spell. Simpson then pulled his tee shot into the hazard for another bogey at 13 and missed from inside six feet for par at 14.

No longer was Simpson swinging with Olympic aplomb, while the confidence visibly dribbled out of his belly putter, a straightforward four-footer going abegging as he dropped another shot at 16.

Good luck to Potter, who applied a thrilling eagle-birdie finish to the 64 which set the clubhouse target on 16-under.

This guy turned pro out of high school at age 19 and worked servicing motors in the cart barn at his local course to fund his exploits on the Moonlight Tour in Florida.

His pickaxe swing clearly never was polished or refined at country club or college -- yet it obviously works, landing Potter a life-changing US$1.098m bounty in the process.

However, the most stunning feature of Sunday's final round was Simpson's lack of resolve. When events turned against him, it proved as brittle as lightbulb glass.

Sixteen Majors have been played since Tiger's most recent top-level success at the 2008 US Open and in that time an unprecedented 12 first-time champions have been crowned.

Seven of those new Major winners have since not tasted victory either in Europe or the US -- including Stewart Cink (2009 British Open), YE Yang (2009 PGA), Charl Schwartzel (2010 Masters), Darren Clarke (2011 Open), Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA) and Bubba Watson (2012 Masters).

Okay, it's a bit early to be ringing alarm bells for April's Augusta Master, even if Watson's wildly creative ways leave him ill-equipped for the discipline demanded at golf's other Majors.

Though Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open) and Martin Kaymer (2010 PGA) both underscored their class as champions by embarking on phenomenal winning sprees after their Major breakthroughs, neither has won this year.

And if 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen cleaned up at the Africa and Malaysian Opens early this season, he has missed four cuts in his last six outings.

As multiple Major winners, Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera rank with Phil Mickelson in a special uber-category.

Still, the Dubliner has lost that winning habit since clinching his third Major in 13 months at the 2008 PGA, while Cabrera has been having a drought since he prevailed at The Masters in 2009.

Mickelson might have knocked Tiger's nose out of joint with his win at Pebble Beach in February but was so miffed by the latest in a line of strangely subdued performances as he missed the cut at Greenbrier last Friday that he immediately signed up for this week's Scottish Open.

Okay, Rory McIlroy's recent form hasn't been too hot either but the 23-year-old's 'A' game is so good, he can hack-up in any Major -- including next week's British Open at Lytham -- if he hits top gear.

For that matter, so can Woods, even if he followed up his third win of the season at Congressional with a baffling missed cut at Greenbrier, the first time he and Mickelson both missed out at the same event.

There was a time when Major winners seemed to take on a special aura. Yet so many newcomers have been crowned in the wildly unpredictable post-Tiger era, there are no cast-iron favourites for Lytham next week.

It's just as well Lee Westwood sustained no long-term damage in Saturday's slip on his way to the first tee in Paris because he's never going to have a better chance than next week's Open to satisfy his life-long quest for a Major title.

The bottom line is that the Englishman must seize this chance or forever hold his peace.

Irish Independent

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