Exactly one year ago, Lee Westwood missed the halfway cut in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. In the 12 months since, the 45-year-old Englishman has failed to play on the weekend at only two more European Tour events. And in one of those he was forced to retire through injury.
More impressively, Westwood recorded a 24th victory on his home circuit when he finished first at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa last November. It was his first win in more than four years, but also the fourth top-five finish in a season that saw the former world No.1 pull up in 17th spot on the Race to Dubai. Only once since 2003 has he finished lower than 30th on what used to be called the Order of Merit.
It would be easy to go on and on in tribute to a career that has been dotted with 10 Ryder Cup appearances, more than €36 million in earnings on the European Tour alone and 17 top-10 finishes in Major championships – nine of which were third or better. It is clear Westwood, despite the absence of a Grand Slam win, has long been a helluva player.
And he still is, courtesy of a change in perspective that has seen him take charge of his own affairs on the course and adopt a more relaxed attitude to his swing technique. To that end, Westwood is not currently employing a professional caddie, having parted ways from long-term bagman Billy Foster. Girlfriend Helen Storey is on the bag in Dubai this week, as she was when Westwood won the Nedbank. Son Sam (age 17) is lined up for a few events later in the season. And “a couple of mates” are due to fill in a few of the other gaps in the schedule.
Sam Westwood has also played a part in his father’s renewed enthusiasm for the game that has filled his professional life.
“Sam has been dragging me out to play at times when I might not have gone,” Lee said. “Also helping is giving him a lesson. He has watched me swinging the club and he has all the same faults I do. So it’s like giving myself a lesson. I’m talking through what I ought to be doing and it is sticking in my head. What I’m working on right now is what I told Sam to work on three weeks ago.”
All of which sounds like the golf equivalent of a mid-life calmness. For all his successes, Westwood has had a career sprinkled with real disappointment. More than once, he has come heartbreakingly close to breaking his Major drought, frustrations he has handled with a commendable stoicism. It is a trait that has brought him full-circle to the mental state that has produced his string of strong performances over the past few months.
“A lot of this has just come from me knowing myself,” Westwood says. “I’m quite a dangerous golfer at the moment because I don’t care anymore. I’m playing golf like I don’t care. Greg Norman told me to do that years ago. He said, ‘Try your balls off and don’t give a bleep about the outcome or the result.’ So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m playing like I did when I was a kid, really. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying. But I don’t care. There’s a difference.”
Freed from just about any kind of analysis, Westwood has found himself playing quicker and “freer”. By just “getting on with it”, he is making more putts and is not so bothered about leaving himself the sort of three-footers that have dogged him over the past few years. More than once his strong tee-to-green game has carried him into contention, only for failings on the greens to let him down on Sundays.
“All I’m really doing is playing how I used to play,” he says. “But I got away from that. It all started to mean too much. Now I’m back to playing like a teenager. The caddieing thing has come about because I want to be ‘cleaner’ and more straightforward in my own head. And the best way to do that is by not giving anyone else any input. It’s all down to me. I’ve been out here 26 years. I ought to know how far it is, what club to hit, how to judge the wind and where not to miss greens.
“Even if I make a wrong decision I’m OK, as long as I have committed 100 percent to that decision,” he continues. “To me, that’s better than being 50 percent committed to the right decision. There’s no doubt in my head over the ball. Besides, how wrong am I going to get something? Maybe 10 yards, at most.”
In the midst of all this rejuvenation, Westwood made it clear that he was not a candidate for the European Ryder Cup captaincy in 2020, a job that has since gone to Padraig Harrington. Waiting until Italy in 2022 makes sense though, for a man who surely just has to raise his hand in order to take the helm of a team in which he has played with such distinction. Seven times in his 10 appearances Westwood ended up on the winning side.
“I’ll be a better captain at home,” he insists. “I was never going to run for the Ryder Cup captaincy this time round, regardless of whether I won the Nedbank or not. It’s the right time for Padraig. He will make a better captain in America, at the age he is. I’m still a little bit too young.
“Certain times fit better in certain people’s careers,” he goes on. “Two years time would have been too soon for me. Because it’s not in two years time really; it’s now. I’ve seen previous captains struggle to play well in the run-up to the matches. There’s too much going on. Take this week, for example. When I’d rather have someone asking me how I’m playing, they would be questioning me on what I think of Whistling Straits. I want to put all that stuff off while I’m still competitive.”
Which Westwood still is, especially on recent form. In his first start of 2019, Westwood finished T-16 last week in Abu Dhabi. He isn’t exactly screaming from the rooftops about how he is going to make the team at Whistling Straits next year (he also served as an assistant captain to Thomas Bjorn last year in Paris), but he isn’t ruling out such an eventuality, either. Let’s call it a mixture of realism and ambivalence.
“Playing one more Ryder Cup is not a huge incentive for me,” he insists. “I know I’m good enough to play next year. But I’m not putting it up there as a goal. My aim is to keep free-wheeling as I am and keep the attitude I have now. I know everything else will click into place if I keep doing that. More immediately, my aims are to make the top 50 and 60 to get me into the Masters and the US Open. I missed playing in them last year. Everyone out here who is competitive and thinks they have a chance to win – or at least do well – want to play in the biggest events. In that at least, I’m no different.”