Interview: Lee Westwood, golfer

Lee Westwood would love to dance on the TV, but has a major ambition to fulfil first

He’s got other, more important things on his mind at the moment – like the winning of a major championship. So it won’t happen next year. Or the year after. Or even the year after that. But maybe a decade or more from now, the world’s third-ranked golfer, Lee Westwood, is favourably inclined to give Strictly Come Dancing a try. Of course, it won’t be his first trip around the floor.

“In retirement I’d love to have a go,” confirms the man from Worksop. “My Nan and Grandad used to run an old-time dance school, so I did do a bit when I was a little boy. I was even ‘highly commended’ in a couple of dances: the Lilac Waltz and the Boston Two-Step. And I’ve still got the medals to prove it.

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“We’re talking 30 years ago mind. So it’s been a while since I slipped on my patent dancing shoes. I’m a bit out of practice. But I’d have a fair idea going in. Although I’m not too sure how I’d look in those tight sequined outfits. I think I’d have to lose some weight. And the fake tan? I’d have to get the hair-removing cream out first!”

Quite apart from any insider knowledge gained in childhood, Westwood would make the ideal Strictly competitor. Given the dedication and discipline he routinely brings to his day job, no one in the starting line-up would take it more seriously and try harder to improve.

“Lee has never needed any external motivation,” reveals swing coach, Pete Cowen. “He motivates himself and has always wanted to be the best he can be. That’s why he spends so much time in the gym developing his body.

“He always feels like he can improve, no matter what anyone else does. Yes, he has been overshadowed a bit by the likes of Rory [McIlroy], Darren [Clarke] and Luke [Donald] this year, but that hasn’t stopped him striving to get better. His golf has been stunning at times. Last week at Sun City [where Westwood retained his Nedbank Challenge title] even his caddie, Billy [Foster], was impressed; he said he had never seen driving like that from anyone and he has worked for some of the world’s greatest players.”

Still, there is little doubt that what really drives Westwood is the thought of winning one of golf’s four most important titles. He has, after all, achieved pretty much everything else over the course of a career that has seen him rise to number four in the world, fall as far as 266th, then rise again to the very pinnacle of the rankings. A Grand Slam title, however, has eluded him, despite a number of often agonisingly near things in all four over the last few years.

“It’s been a pretty good season, but not in comparison with the previous two,” he says in reference to 2011. “My major championship performances, for example, were generally OK this year. But I never really had a chance of victory. In 2009 and 2010 I had chances to win nearly all of them. So following that was always going to be tough. Having said that, I would have had a chance at Augusta if I had putted half-decently. I finished 11th putting like a Muppet. I remember using three different putters that week. Then I was third at the US Open, although I don’t think anyone was going to beat Rory there. Then I led the ‘greens in regulation’ category for the first two rounds of the Open – yet still missed the cut. Then I was eighth or ninth at the PGA, I’m not sure. Which actually tells you where my priorities lie. I’m not that interested in top-ten finishes; it’s all about winning now.”

Not exactly working to Westwood’s advantage, however, is one of the least appealing aspects of modern golf at the top level. One of the finest drivers of this or any other generation, the 38-year-old Englishman’s edge is diminished hugely by the combination of large-headed metal clubs and a ball that all but refuses to move sideways in the air.

“The modern game actually hurts Lee in terms of his driving,” confirms Cowen. “You used to be able to win tournaments by driving it great like he does. Ian Woosnam did that. So did Nick Price. And Greg Norman. In comparison, the poor drivers couldn’t get round the courses. But the game at the top level isn’t like that any more. Because of the technology, everyone is a decent driver, almost to the point where the art of driving has been lost. So there is even more pressure on the putting.

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“I’d love to see these guys out there with persimmon woods and balata balls. Not on 7,500-yard courses mind; no one would get round. But on a 7,000-yard course the superior driver would have the opportunity to separate himself from the rest. In those circumstances Lee would win far more often than he does now.”

On that particular topic, Westwood, a modest soul, is understandably more circumspect than his coach, but when the conversation switches to putting there is no disguising his frustration.

“Away from the majors I’ve won three times this year,” he says. “That’s not an unsuccessful year. But I have to acknowledge the fact that I’ve gone from number one in the world to number three. So that’s a step back even if my game is, all around, better than it was a year ago. The common theme to my putting this year was that they weren’t going in. I had a poor pace and direction to my stroke, both of which I’ve been working on with Phil Kenyon.”

Next year, of course, will see Westwood back on America’s PGA Tour as a fully paid-up member. Again, one gets the feeling that, after a relatively quiet time over the last 12 months, the former Australian Open champion is not prepared to accept a slightly lower profile for long.

“I just fancied a new challenge, a bit of a change,” he continues. “I sat and watched a couple of the Fed-Ex events this year and thought they looked like fun. So I’m going to have a go at doing what Luke has done this year. I think doing that will help me in the majors. Playing more in America can only help me get used to that style of golf. With three of the majors over there, that could be important.

“The majors are obviously a big motivation for me. I haven’t won one yet and I would like to. They are the starting points for my schedule. Everything else has to fit in with what I think will be the best preparation for them. I’ve played in more than 50 of them so I know what to do in order not to put extra pressure on myself.

“I’m not alone, of course. Luke is number one in the world and he hasn’t won a major. Sergio [Garcia] hasn’t either. And neither has Adam [Scott]. So we’re all in this together, which kind of dissipates the attention any one of us gets in the lead-up to a major. There are so many good players out there who haven’t won one. A look at the list of recent major champions only shows how open they are. It’s all about putting it together in the right week. If you do that, you can win.”

As far as next year is concerned, Westwood already has his schedule all worked out, one that will give him, he thinks and hopes, the best possible chance of success in at least one of the events that would provide a fitting cap to a distinguished career. Disappointingly, however, he is unlikely to be in the field for the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in the week before the Open Championship at Royal Lytham.

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“I try not to treat majors too differently,” he says, albeit unconvincingly. “It doesn’t do to put them on too much of a pedestal. If I want to play a week before then I will. But if I don’t like the course or it doesn’t quite fit then I won’t. I try not to blow them up out of all proportion and treat them like any other week. But they’re not, of course.

“I play Houston in the week before the Masters because they get the greens really fast and they have lots of roll-offs around the greens. Plus, I just like to play right before Augusta. Next year the US Open is in San Francisco so I’ll try to get there early and recover fully from the eight-hour time change. I’ll practice at Olympic then go off and play somewhere else for a few days. That way I’ll get back fresh.

“I’m not sure how I’ll prepare for the Open. I’ll probably play a bit of links golf the week before. But I won’t go to the Scottish Open. I wasn’t a fan of Castle Stuart. It didn’t feel tight enough off the tee. We needed a 25-30mph wind to make it play as it should.”

All of that, though, is for the future. In the meantime Westwood will focus on the same thing he always does: getting better.

“You can assume that Lee will continue to try to improve in every area of the game,” points out Cowen. “And I mean everything. He has a great attitude and I see him improving for as long as he is physically able.”

Or at least until the call of Strictly proves too tempting.

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