The Open: Westwood among ‘danger men’ once again

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HE KNOWS time is ticking, even if he doesn’t necessarily like being reminded of it.

With that in mind, Lee Westwood is no longer playing the waiting game, hoping that the golf which has produced 39 tour wins and earned him the title of World No 1 for a spell in 2010 and again in 2011 is finally going to click for the duration of a major.

A happy-go-lucky sort may be the way he describes himself, but he is no longer so laid back when it comes to the goal of a major win.

At 40 he is far more proactive, doing everything he can to prolong his stay at the top of the field and land one of the “big four”.

In the past year he has moved to Florida, which has enriched his chipping and scrambling sk ills, he says, and in the past month he has enrolled the services of Tiger Woods and Justin Rose’s coach Sean Foley to address his long game and has been working on his putting with former Open winner Ian Baker-Finch.

For a man who had been without a coach since he split with Pete Cowan last summer, he is now fully invested and on the evidence of yesterday’s round, it seems to be working.

On a day when so many continued to struggle on this baked links course, he set off with purpose, accumulating six birdies in the first 12 holes to take him joint top of the leaderboard. There was a spring in his step, a relaxing rhythm to his golf and the promise of something not just really special, but exceptional.

But on the 13th, with the giant electronic scoreboard as a backdrop, he dropped a shot and from the 14th tee he found the long hay to the left of the fairway, hacked it into the shorter rough. Having eventually made it to the green, he left himself a 25-yard putt for par. He had sunk one like that on the first green to get his impressive round going, but this time his effort zipped six feet by and ensured the best he could muster was another bogey.

It could have signalled a real turnaround in fortunes, as the course grew more glassy and uncontrollable by the minute, but his work with Baker-Finch came to the fore as his putter helped him pull off some remarkable saves in the following holes to keep him four under for the day. Three times in the next three holes he had to rely on his holing ability to make par. In the past that may have been an issue, with his putting considered the most inconsistent part of his game. But he looked relaxed as he drilled them along the correct line. Everyone else held their breath but he appeared sure of his stroke, a lot surer than he has ever looked.

“I felt pretty comfortable. I was hitting the ball well. Putting nicely,” he said, justifiably happy with the form that has seen him one-putt 18 times in the opening 36 holes.

“I got a couple of tips from Ian on getting tension out of my arms and having a bit more control,” he said. “And I’m getting it on line nicely, and I’ve gauged the pace of the greens as well. Those are the momentum putts you need to make... you have to roll a few in just to keep the momentum going, and we did that.”

“Around this sort of golf course those par putts are birdie putts on other tournaments,” said one of his playing companions, Charl Schwartzel, who also carded a 68 but, recognising the consistency of the Englishman’s first two rounds and the confidence flowing from Westwood’s game, he earmarked him as one of the “danger men” going into the weekend.

As has so often been the case over the first two days, the course was to have the last word, claiming a bogey from Westwood on the 18th. It didn’t leave him down-hearted. Given the way the fairways were growing more fiery, the green more glassy, he was confident his round of 68 would still be good enough to keep him at the right end of the leaderboard.

“I was playing some great stuff, but it was just getting harder as the holes progressed, tougher to score, tougher to get it close,” he said. “The finish is tough. 16, 17, 18 are playing hard. So it’s like most major championships, it’s a grind out there.”

The consolation was his belief that with conditions worsening, his early tee-off meant he had the advantage over the afternoon groups and he said that having survived his personal war with the Muirfield links, he was looking forward to nipping back to the house he is staying in, backing onto the course, and “kicking back on the couch and watching some struggles”.

“I felt if I came out and shot level par, I thought 1-over would be right in contention. So to be 2-under is a real bonus. It could be leading at the end of the day, you never know.”

He wasn’t, but he is still definitely in the mix in this, his favourite major. In two of the last four years he has finished top three, coming second to Louis Oosthuizen in 2010. So he has been close but not as close as he wants to be.

“I’m hitting the ball well. And controlling the flight most of the time pretty well, and getting up and down when I needed to. I’ve always enjoyed playing Muirfield and felt like it suited my game. This is the biggest tournament of the year for me, being a Brit, and it being played in Britain. And why not enjoy it out there? It’s tough for everybody. So smile your way through.”

He has done as much as he can and as the afternoon struggles he predicted materialised, it’s a safe bet he was smiling on that sofa.