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European Chances at the U.S. Open
On the eve of the final round at this year's Masters, Lee Westwood, who led the tournament by a stroke, was asked in all seriousness if he felt ready to win a major. Those that have followed the Englishman's career since he turned professional in 1993, and who were watching the live TV interview, sat stunned thinking they must either have misheard the question or misinterpreted it entirely. They noticed the player's very slight pause before he responded in the affirmative. Westwood appeared calm and collected, genial even, but it was surely all he could do to stop himself from flashing the interviewer (name withheld) a nasty look and asking where he had been for the last 10 years.
Westwood has been ready to win a major since the late 1990s. He won his first tournament on the European Tour in August 1996, then added the prestigious season-ending Volvo Masters and five other top-three finishes the following year. If he hadn't paid his dues already, he erased all doubt in 1998 by winning on the PGA Tour for the first time - at the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans where he beat Steve Flesch by three strokes - and collecting four more titles in Europe. 1999 was another solid season with three wins and a total of eight top-fives, and in 2000 he won the European Tour Order of Merit; something that no one, whose name wasn't Colin Montgomerie, had done since 1992. By the end of that year, he had amassed 24 career wins worldwide, recorded a total of three top-10s and nine top-25 finishes at the majors, played in the Ryder Cup twice and the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews four times, and had risen to No. 4 in the world rankings. With stats like that, it would have been no surprise had Westwood bagged a couple of major championship victories long before his 30th birthday.
But, at 37, he is still seeking his first. Two pronounced slumps have come and thankfully gone in the intervening years, and only recently has he begun contending at the game's biggest events on a regular basis.
That, supposedly, is what triggered the question about his being ready to win one of the Grand Slam events. With so many ups and downs, and because he remains a committed member of the European Tour, Westwood was still something of an unknown quantity in America and his high finishes - four top-threes in the last eight majors - were viewed not as those of an up-and-coming talent certainly but were perhaps unanticipated.
Because of this success at the majors, and because he won the St. Jude Classic in Memphis last weekend, Westwood is now firmly established in the top three in the world - .91 of a point ahead of Steve Stricker in fourth and 1.29 behind second-place Phil Mickelson.
Westwood arrives at Pebble Beach as likely a winner of the year's second major as anyone, including Mickelson and the man .55 ahead of him in the rankings, Tiger Woods. Following his playoff victory on Sunday evening, Westwood spoke to the press with the quiet self-belief of an assured and confident man. "When I looked at the four majors, I felt straight away Pebble would offer me my best chance this year," he said. "So having gone as close as I did in Augusta, I'm entitled to look forward to a big week at the U.S. Open."
That's his way of saying he expects to contend at the very least. And if he does, it wouldn't be the first time he had performed well on the West Coast. Two years ago at Torrey Pines, Westwood finished a shot out of the Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff, and at Pebble Beach in 2000 he was fifth, 17 shots distant of the almost inhuman Woods but only a couple behind Ernie Els and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, who tied for second. "I was just two shots off the pace in the 'other' tournament," he said, "the one Tiger Woods wasn't playing in." Two years before that, he came in seventh at the Olympic Club near San Francisco.
You don't need to be an expert mathematician to see where that sequence - 7th, 5th, 3rd… - is heading. "I like the greens in California," Westwood said. "And I love the way the United States Golf Association sets up their courses to test your accuracy and your long game. The rough is pretty severe and that should work in my favor. My greens-in-regulation stats measure up to pretty much anyone's, especially in the big events."
Westwood was at Pebble Beach for a 27-hole practice session before flying to Memphis. He worked with caddie Billy Foster on deciding the best lines from the tee, which pins might be accessible and which he should shy away from, and the spots where you would go "only if you were nuts or your game was all over the place."
It's preparation like this that Westwood believes is key to his recent good form at the tournaments that really matter. "I think the reason I've been knocking on the door so often in the majors recently is because I've finally learned the knack of how to peak for them," he said. "I don't now just turn up the week of the tournament and spend three or four days bashing my brains out trying to learn as much as I can about the course. I've accepted that I need to do the nitty-gritty in advance, so I usually play a round or two at the major courses a week or so [before the tournament]."
Were Westwood to claim that elusive first major this week, he would break a chain far longer than that with which Montgomerie locked up Europe's Order of Merit. He'd become the continent's first player to win the U.S. Open in 40 years, a shutout that totally defies explanation despite various attempts to rationalize it. (It was another Englishman, Tony Jacklin, who gave Europe its last win at America's national championship which somehow escaped the clutches of grinders Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer, the occasionally brilliant Ian Woosnam, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Sandy Lyle, and the incomparable Seve Ballesteros. whose exquisite skills were often rendered ineffective in the U.S. Open's excessively penal rough.)
Focusing solely on Westwood fails, however, to spotlight the field's 36 other Europeans, and 12 Englishmen in particular. Some of them are here by virtue of a good day at an international qualifier three weeks ago at Walton Heath near London and will do very well to make it to the weekend. But plenty are here with justified hopes of glory.
Luke Donald just returned from a three-week hiatus in Europe where he began with a tie for second at the BMW PGA Championship, followed that with a win in Madrid, and then finished third in Wales. His record at the U.S. Open is surprisingly poor - a best finish of T12 in six starts, but he appears to possess the necessary shotmaking skills, unflappable demeanor, and patience that characterize a typical U.S. Open champion.
Ian Poulter and Paul Casey are both capable of springing a surprise, as are Henrik Stenson (who had him down to win the '09 Players?) and Padraig Harrington, whose current form may not portend a fourth major victory but who clearly has the big-game temperament. You know that if he's in the mix come Sunday, he'll have his unblinking eyes and will not start wilting near the finish line.
The next European in line for a major, however, may well be its youngest representative - 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, who showed the world what he is capable of with that closing 62 at the Quail Hollow Championship in the first week of May. Quail Hollow is very highly regarded. It invariably boasts one of the best fields of the year and almost has the look and feel of a major. So for McIlroy to burst through the field with so spectacular a closing round demonstrates that, like Harrington, he has what it takes to play uncommonly good golf when the heat is on.
Westwood, Donald and McIlroy are Europe's best chances of breaking the undesirable 0-for-40 cycle this week. And yes, before anybody asks, they are all ready to win a major.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. Tony recently launched a new website, http://bellinghamgolfer.com, devoted to his adopted city and the surrounding area. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.