Friday 15 December 2017

Westwood warms up for another crack at the Majors

James Corrigan

Every golfer will know the nightmare. The six-foot putt dribbles past the hole and keeps rolling and rolling. And rolling. And rolling.

Except some have seen it for real; Lee Westwood, for one. As a US Open novice he was there at the Olympic Club 14 years ago when Payne Stewart's balata turned into a runaway train, eventually pulling up five times further away from where it started.

It is Westwood's enduring memory from San Francisco, 1998, which is quite an admission given that the then 26-year-old finished seventh, his first top 10 in an American major.

If that week confirmed he had the tools to handle golf at its highest level then Stewart's agony warned him how tough that level can be.

"What happened to Payne is about all I can remember," said Westwood. "I suppose that tournament did show me I could hack it in the US Majors, but, to be honest, I'd already won on the PGA Tour that year and was fairly confident in my abilities."

"If that week told me anything it was how hard the US Open can be. Payne's putt underlined the point.

"When you hit an approach to six or eight feet or whatever it was and you barely touch the birdie putt, you don't expect to be watching it sliding 30 feet down the hill. The green was too fast for that pin position and, yes, it was unfair.

"Frankly, it was daft. I hadn't really seen that side of the US Open before, as my first time at Congressional the year before the ground was much softer. Let's say it was an eye-opener."

For Stewart it was a teeth-grinder; he lost by one after that three-putt. He went on to win it a year later, but in a few months was lost in an air tragedy.

For Westwood his US Open education continued, but "fortunately,'' said Westwood, "they now have a man in charge who understands that the challenge can be fair as well as difficult."

That man is Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director. "I played with Mike in pro-am at Wentworth (three weeks ago) and he was telling me about Olympic," said Westwood. "The rough will be graded, so if you're just a few yards off the fairway you're not going to be up against thick rough. The course will play how it should."

It will be interesting to see how it is set up this year. The USGA do not usually respond well to a birdie-fest and Rory McIlroy's eight-shot victory last year was certainly in that category. Davis has already warned that two-over could be more than a satisfactory score through Olympic's fearsome first six holes and, despite finishing as runner-up to McIlroy, Westwood will be content if it is tougher -- so long as it is just.

Westwood, meanwhile, warmed up for the US Open in rousing style winning his third Nordea Masters title by five shots in Stockholm yesterday. A 69 for a 19-under-par total gave him his second victory of the season.


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