WHO knows what significance will be attached to it today and beyond, but out by that 16th green last night at Muirfield it sure as hell seemed like a seminal moment in the story of Lee Westwood’s seemingly endless pursuit of a major championship.
Westwood was staring double bogey in the face on that trappy par-3, having first missed the green with his tee-shot and then watched as his pitch from a bad spot in the rough, his worst lie of the week, came trickling back to him. He had a 15-footer to avoid double – and he nailed it.
Whether the Westwood of old would have sunk that putt is a moot point, but there is no doubting that the Englishman is a putting like he has rarely putted before. He is convincing and he is leading. After 15 top-ten finishes in major championships going to back to 1999, after nine top-fives and seven top-threes Westwood is two shots clear of Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan and three clear of Adam Scott. Such an advantage is painfully slender on this golf course, where evil lurks at every turn, but it’s a precious lead all the same. Woods has never won a major from this position but plenty of others have. Scott, the Masters champion and the heartbreak story of Lytham 2012, is an ominous presence. Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera – three majors between them – and Henrik Stenson are only four back as is the sleeper of the field, the American Ryan Moore who has missed the cut in five of his last ten tournaments and yet there he is in the hunt. Phil Mickelson is five adrift and not without a chance if he finds his wondrous best.
“Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one,” said Westwood later. “It’s just a question of having confidence in my game, which I have. I’ve had lots of chances before. I could have won four already with the right things going my way, so those are the things you need to feed off. You try to learn from the things you did wrong and change them.”
This was a compelling third day at the Open championship. Compelling and cruel. Miguel Angel Jimenez, the overnight leader, shot 77 and fell away. Martin Laird, two off the lead on Saturday, shanked and penalty dropped his way up the third hole and took nine and disappeared from view, shooting 81.
It was a day when the greens were watered and more receptive, when the pin positions were more accessible and less hidden and a day, still, when Muirfield fried the brains of the best in the world. There was some wind and that is all it takes round here. There was something else, too. Yesterday was the day when the tournament overlords decided to do something about slow play, penalising one player, Hideki Matsuyama, a shot and putting the marquee pairing of Westwood and Woods on the clock. Just what they needed in the pressure-cooker.
There was a topsy-turvy dynamic to the play. Jimenez began as leader but was overtaken by Woods, who was overtaken by Westwood who was caught and who then pulled away again. Westwood was striking the ball so crisply and playing with such calm authority that you could have been forgiven early on for allowing the mind to start thinking about what might be for the man who deserves a major championship more than any other. That was just the first time that those thoughts passed through the mind. They would again later on.
Woods birdied the second hole and took the lead, but Westwood would soon take it from him. This was not the duel in the sun, but it was a duel none the less and it was absorbing stuff. Miraculous stuff at times, especially when Westwood rattled in a monster putt for eagle on the fifth green before birding the 7th, to Woods’ bogey. At that point, Westwood led the Open championship by three clear shots.
What Muirfield giveth, Muirfield taketh away. By the time the pair had walked off the ninth green they were level again, Westwood bogeying the eighth and ninth, where Woods birdied. This was the flow of their day. They were walking on fairways but they were treading on egg-shells at the same time.
The momentum-shifter was that bogey putt on 16 and the birdie that followed in its wake. “Looking at the lie after my tee-shot, it had gone right down to the bottom in a bit of a hole,” said Westwood. “There weren’t many options. Not good options anyway. I was pleased to make four. That’s what’s been missing, making those putts. And backing it up with a birdie at the next, those are the sorts of things you need to do.”
Westwood outscored Woods by two on the day and that will mean a lot to him as he gets his mind in gear for the final round. Woods now needs to do something that he has never done and that is come from behind to win a major championship.
In his own pursuit of a first major in five years, he will be looking at the group ahead with Westwood and Mahan playing in the final pairing, he will be looking to his side where Scott will be and he will be looking behind to Cabrera and Stenson and Johnson and maybe even Mickelson, too.
Mahan hadn’t broken par in his first two rounds but his 68, preserved when he holed a 20-footer for par on the 18th green, was the round of the day. He has recent form in the Open. Not outrageous form, but reasonable. He was 19th last year at Lytham and sixth at Carnoustie in 2007. Mahan has not enjoyed a reputation of one of the game’s finest chippers of the golf ball. Witness his fluff in the final match of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and his tears in the aftermath. His putter, though? As hot as the sun above us this week. Hotter than hot at times.
Once he started birdie-birdie yesterday his name suddenly appeared on the leaderboard, the first of those shots picked up when he wedged to a foot, the second when he holed-out from 50ft. That par-save on 18 was another bomb. “I made a bunch of key putts,” he said.
“The putter was strong and I had a good touch all day. That one on 18 was a nice way to end the round. It can be overwhelming at times out there. Being in the first or second last groups [last, it is] and to have everybody following you and seeing all the scores and everything, it can be overwhelming. I definitely think you have to believe that you can win, you’ve got to have that confidence. You have to believe before it can actually happen.”
He and Westwood are in the same boat on that front. Neither have done it and they have, in their vicinity, guys who have. Woods shot 72 and is continuing to scramble and plot his way through this championship, though his rounds are heading in the wrong direction each day; 69, 71, 72.
Scott is a fascinating presence. He was round in 70 and spoke afterwards about his calm mental state. “I’m not carrying the weight of the lead and I’m not having to worry about not having won a major,” he said. He didn’t mean it as mind games against Westwood, but that’s how it came out. “It’s a long way off. The course can turn on you in a heartbeat if you’re not careful. The spotlight is going to be on two guys [Westwood and Woods], but as soon as you do something then you’re in the spotlight, too. It would be a fairytale if it were to happen. They do occasionally happen, fairytales.”
Westwood is the man, though. The Man. Again. A two-shot lead with 18 to play. It’s not much. It could vanish in a minute, but he has that advantage and he looks in the cool frame of mind where he is not about to give it up easily. Can Westwood join the Muirfield immortals. It’s time, is it not? Good Lord, it’s most definitely time.