King of the selfish and ruthless
Lee Westwood admits he had to hit rock bottom before his steady rise to summit, writes Anna Kessel
Everyone loves the story of how Lee Westwood found out he was the world's No 1 golfer.
"In Sainsbury's," he says, grinning. "Looking for mashed potatoes and rubber gloves -- Marigolds, small size." The scenario speaks volumes about the kind of person he is. "Not a . . . [he struggles to find the word] . . . sports star. Just a golfer."
These days he may find himself photographed chatting to Fabio Capello at the Manchester derby (Capello ribbing him about losing to the Italian golfer Francesco Molinari in Shanghai), but in essence Westwood has not changed. Never tempted to move to Florida or Dubai, adopt a ridiculous haircut or flashy clothes, Westwood instead lives in the same area he grew up in around Worksop, with his wife and two young children.
In a small country hotel on the edge of the snow-covered Sherwood Forest, Westwood remembers the day, six weeks ago, when his father telephoned him with the news. "My dad said: 'It looks like you'll be world No 1 in a few hours and I wanted to be the first to say congratulations'. I said: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, hang on. I can't find the mashed potatoes'. He said: 'You should have more respect than that for the world No 1's father'." Westwood leans back and laughs.
"Then Billy [Foster, Westwood's caddie] rang me and completely messed up my thought process -- I had to ask which aisle the mashed potato was."
That afternoon, Westwood celebrated with his wife, Laurae, their children, Sam and Poppy, and a bottle of champagne over Sunday lunch. "Sam said: 'Why are you having champagne?' and my wife said: 'Well, it's because daddy's just become world No 1'. And Poppy said, 'Yeah, he's even the best golfer in India'."
He laughs. "Actually it was my son who was one of the first people that brought it home to me. Instead of being the world's best golfer, he said: 'Really? D'you mean you're the best golfer on this planet?' -- and, when someone says 'planet', it seems even bigger than the world -- so I said: 'Yes, I am,'" Westwood beams.
There are a few stories of how the news of being No 1 really sank in. The reality -- after 17 years as a pro golfer and never having won a Major -- was hard to accept. Chubby Chandler, Westwood's charismatic agent, friend and drinking partner in a circle of associates of which Freddie Flintoff is also a member, says he thinks the moment came on a flight back from that tournament in Shanghai last month. A stewardess, who knew nothing about golf, approached Westwood to say he had a lovely tan. She asked what he had been up to and he said: "Playing a bit of golf." She said: "Are you any good?" Westwood thought about what to say for a few seconds and then smiled. "Yes," he said, "I'm the best in the world."
Being the best in the world has been on Westwood's mind ever since he was a child. He remembers writing it down on his career advice forms at school. Ambition? "To be the best in the world." Competitiveness was instilled in him by his father, a maths teacher, who turned every occasion -- from marks out of 10 for diving into a pool on holiday to playing cards -- into a competition. Westwood started playing golf only at 13 but it instantly became another obsession to master.
"Listen, everything I did in my childhood was competitive. Everything we did my dad made it into a game to win. We used to drive my mum nuts. Even doing times tables round the dinner table, I'd have to rattle them off quick -- because he was a maths teacher, you know, he'd be shouting them out. And my mum used to sit there thinking -- she tells me now -- 'God, I hope he doesn't ask me one'."
Westwood is the same with his own children. "I've had my son crying sometimes," he says, "'You never let me win!' But there's no point because it doesn't mean anything. The satisfaction you get when you finally beat your dad is amazing, that rush of adrenaline." He says it took eight years before he finally beat his dad at arm wrestling, aged 16. He pumps his fist. "Yes! Done it!"
For a man to whom being the best means everything, it is difficult to imagine how hard failure must have hit him when he tumbled down the world rankings from a high of No 4 during 2000 to an all-time low of 266 in 2002, when he finished the year at 181. He nods, remembering, and the warmth in his face disappears. "I went through a slump seven or eight years ago and at that point, if I'd have sat there and stared into a mirror, I would have thought, 'Maybe I'll never be the best now,' because I couldn't see any light at the end of any tunnels or anything like that. I really lost complete form. I was always striving to improve and get it back, but you never know if it will happen."
Westwood, 37, does not like talking about that "slump" now but for everyone else it is what makes his story so remarkable. The day before this interview, Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old rookie with a close relationship to Westwood, had said that, if there was one question he could ask the world No 1, it would be: 'How did you manage to turn your life around?' It seems surprising that McIlroy has not already heard the answer to this from a man who has been, through their mutual friend Darren Clarke, an unofficial mentor to the youngster. Westwood, though, will not tell anybody the secrets of how he did it.
"Do you want my answer?" he says, then leans forward, suddenly very intense. There is an unfamiliar edge to his voice, a tone that is a million miles away from the chirpy chappy who buys mashed potato in the supermarket and does drunken karaoke on holiday with his mates. A hardness creeps into his face and it hints at the story of a man who hit rock bottom and found it to be an ugly place. "I was very, very ruthless and honest with myself," he says, eyes wide.
"And I would never, ever, tell anyone else what I did until I've finished my career. Because I'm trying to beat them every week and that's the ruthlessness coming out again. So I would never give an edge away." He folds his arms. "I know how I turned it round but I wouldn't tell anybody. Because it's a life experience I've been through that not many people have. And why give that kind of information away? Golf is a very selfish and ruthless sport."
The unanswered question hangs in the air. Was it a specific technique? Some kind of psychology? Westwood grins. "It's many different things, it wasn't just one thing. You can't click your fingers, it's not something you can buy or bottle but there's definitely a process to it all. Yeah." Who else knows the secret? "Nobody." Not even your father? "Nobody." Not even your wife? "No." Westwood mulls this over a bit longer. "I think later in life, when I finish my career, I could probably write a good book, a good read for everybody and put everything in there." While becoming world No 1 has not turned Westwood into a brash celebrity, it has changed him in the sense that he feels a strong sense of responsibility to fulfil the duties of a public figure. In the past he was more concerned with being a private person, but all that changed with his introduction to Twitter. Despite having sworn he would never join, Westwood now tweets throughout the day.
"I am totally addicted," he says, laughing. "I think it's great for taking the mickey out of people and it's also great for helping the public to see what kind of person you are. In golf people get the impression, 'Oh he's a robot, he never smiles, he's just a golfer under a hat' -- that kind of thing. They never really get to know the person behind the golfer, so it's a good way of doing that." What changed his mind? "I just thought maybe now I'm world No1 people should know a bit more about me."
Westwood has taken to it like a duck to water, competing with Flintoff for the title of Britain's favourite fat sportsman, winding up Tiger Woods, dreaming about sausage butties and getting on the beers. But he has also expressed more serious views, his self-described 'rant' about McIlroy losing out to Rickie Fowler in the US PGA's Rookie of the Year award causing controversy, as he accused the American tour of "protectionism". Westwood stands by what he wrote.
"I'd only put on there what I believe to be true. I wasn't putting anything on there to get a rise out of anybody, it's just something I felt very strongly about. People will say, 'yeah rookie of the year, it doesn't mean anything', but it's quite a big accolade and you only get one chance to win it. If you've had as good a year as Rory's had . . . you just have to put achievements up against each other and vote with your head rather than your heart on who's had the better year."
Westwood says the decision is indicative of a bigger problem in golf -- the 'us and them' mentality between the US and the European tour. "There was another agenda and another meaning behind what I actually put on Twitter," he says, voicing his concerns over the future of the sport. "And I think if, as world No 1, I'm not qualified to say something like that and be taken seriously, then who is?"