ForGET Tiger Woods. It’s the absence of Lee John Westwood OBE that would make this year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles feel strange, though, thankfully, that almost certainly is not going to happen now.
Not after the Englishman, who turns 41 on Thursday, returned to winning ways in style by recording a seven-stroke success in the Maybank Malaysian Open on Sunday. It was his 23rd European Tour triumph but the first since claiming the Nordea Masters just under two years ago.
It is hard to believe, but Westwood played his first Ryder Cup back in 1997. His captain at Valderrama, of course, was Seve Ballesteros and his team-mates included Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. He partnered Faldo in four matches – two wins and two defeats – before losing to Jeff Maggert in the singles.
Westwood has been involved in every episode of the biennial bout since then. If he makes the team in Perthshire, it will be his ninth appearance. To put that into context, he will join Welsh legend Dai Rees on that mark. He will also move ahead of Ballesteros, Montgomerie and Woosnam as well as Peter Alliss, Neil Coles, Bernard Hunt, Sam Torrance and Bernard Gallacher.
Only Faldo (11), Langer and Christy O’Connor Jnr (both 10) will have made more appearances for either Great Britain & Ireland or Europe. You can see, then, why Westwood’s weekend win in the Far East will have Paul McGinley, the European captain, purring with satisfaction as his team starts to shape up exactly how he would have been hoping it would.
Was there any doubt that Westwood would be in that line-up, either through his own efforts or a captain’s wild card? On his experience alone, allied to the fact he has played on six winning teams, probably not. McGinley cannot afford any passengers, though, and Westwood’s form heading into this year’s Masters was undoubtedly a slight concern.
He had been steady enough without shooting the lights out – more than once, anyway, as a second-round 65 in the Honda Classic was a good effort – and you could say that just about summed up his week at Augusta National, where rounds of 73, 71, 70 and 73 led him to finish in a share of seventh.
Personally, I fancied him to sneak up in the rails in the final round, similar to the way Adam Scott made his Major breakthrough there 12 months earlier, but it wasn’t to be.
Will Westwood ever land that elusive Major? Now that he seems to have got a few things out of his system, then yes, I think he can. Like so many players over the years, he fell into the trap of trying to improve a swing that, quite bluntly, didn’t need to be changed at all.
After working for a long time with Pete Cowen, he turned to Sean Foley, Tiger’s coach. Did that have something to do with the fact Westwood now lives in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida? Possibly so. It was a working relationship that did not last long, though.
Westwood has now linked up with Mike Walker. He is Cowen’s Academy director and Marc Warren, for one, has benefited from his advice over the past couple of years. He now has Westwood back on track, too, and exciting times lie ahead for one of the European Tour’s great ambassadors.
It was three years ago this week that he claimed the world No 1 spot for a second time and held it for five weeks.
He is 30th in the standings, so still has plenty of work on his hands to get back up there again. It is a challenge he is relishing, though. “I feel I can do it and the difference now is that I’ve got a short game,” he said in reference to an area that has long been considered an Achilles heel.
In contrast, Luke Donald has rarely struggled with a putter or wedge. It will also have pleased McGinley, though, to see him get back to his best with a second-place finish behind Matt Kuchar in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head on Sunday, when the American holed out from a bunker at the last for a well-deserved victory given how well he has played in recent weeks.
Also enjoying a great run of form is Miguel Angel Jimenez, who made a perfect start to his Seniors career as he held off Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples to win the Greater Gwinnet Championship in Georgia at the weekend. It came a week after the Spaniard finished fourth in The Masters and is likely to be the first of many triumphs for him on the over-50s circuit.
It will be music to McGinley’s ears, though, that Jimenez is putting that phase of his career on hold due to the fact he is so determined to play in one more Ryder Cup. If he does, he would claim Ted Ray’s record as the oldest European to tee up in the event. With the likes of Westwood, Donald and Jimenez on the side, Europe undoubtedly have a better chance of winning at Gleneagles, whereas Woods being absent from the US team could enhance their chances. One win in seven appearances hardly makes him a lucky charm, after all, and he was out injured when they last tasted victory – at Valhalla in 2008.
That said, we’d all still prefer to have him there in September.