Sunday 17 December 2017

Westwood blocking Tiger's road to redemption

Lee Westwood
Lee Westwood

Dermot Gilleece

With supreme irony, Lee Westwood stands between Tiger Woods and a desperate quest for a 15th Major title. The 40-year-old Englishman yesterday claimed the Open Championship 54-hole lead on 210, two strokes clear of Woods and fellow American Hunter Mahan in a share of second.

"I'm pleased where I'm at," said Woods. "I've got 14 of these things and I know what it takes to win it. But it's not just us two. There's a bunch of guys who have a chance."

It will be recalled that on the occasion of Woods' last Major triumph in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, Westwood played alongside him on the final day, only to eventually finished third. Now the Englishman is paired with Mahan who, interestingly, filled the same role alongside US Open champion Justin Rose last month at Merion.

With this, his latest shot at glory, it could be said that Westwood has paid his dues in pursuit of the game's highest honours.

He has been runner-up in the Open and the US Masters and claimed third place in the Open and the PGA Championship, apart from his 2008 finish in San Diego.

In fact, both Westwood's and Woods's needs are great, if for quite different reasons, and either would grace the roll of honour at this ageless masterpiece. In 15mph north-easterly winds, Muirfield continued to test imagination and patience, while reminding us that golf was never intended to be a fair game.

Though basic green-speeds were a moderate 10.5 on the Stimpmeter after hand-watering on Friday night, there were treacherous undulations to be negotiated, quite apart from the severity of the bunkering.

A determined push to speed up play led to two Irish players, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington, being put on the clock. In fact, it happened twice to McDowell during his round with Frenchman Gregory Bourdy – and he wasn't best pleased.

"I pointed out to the referee that there's a difference between slow play and bad play and I admit I wasn't playing well," he said after a 73 for a six-over total. "You don't want to be feeling like you're running around this golf course. It unsettles you, being under the referee's scrutiny."

Darren Clarke, who had headed Irish hopes, also finished on six over for the championship, having paid almost an inevitable price for a familiar problem with the blade. Without sight of a birdie, he held things together for 12 holes in one over par, only to eventually succumb to frustration and tumble to a hugely disappointing 76.

Meanwhile, Shane Lowry and Harrington, in successive two-balls, also went backwards. "Unless you hole putts out there, you're going to have a very tough day," said Lowry after a bruising 75. "The most difficult part is the slopey greens, which make St Andrews easy by comparison." His struggle began on the 461-yard sixth, which he double-bogeyed after sending a five-wood tee-shot into a fairway bunker and then over-hitting the recovery into heavy rough.

He would have learned quite a lot from the reaction of Harrington to a dispiriting 77. "The course was playing lovely for us," he said, after a round in the company of an old adversary, Sergio Garcia. "It's testing for sure. The greens are its protection, demanding quite a variation in strategy."

As for his golf, the absence of a single birdie spoke volumes for his current torment. "Over the last six weeks, I haven't made enough birdies that would be acceptable in even one tournament," he said. "But I've got to keep going in the belief that the tide will turn."

Irish Independent

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