Westwood key to Europe's Ryder Cup fortunes

Englishman is perennial runner-up in golf's biggest events

September 30, 2010|By Bill Dwyre, Tribune Newspapers

NEWPORT, WALES — — The British have a marvelous way with words. Journalist Oliver Brown has written that England's Lee Westwood is "golf's perpetual nearly man."

Truth is so much better when it is also lyrical.

As today's Ryder Cup plays on toward Sunday's expected dramatic conclusion, one thing can be established without any final results. This is Westwood's time.

He is 37, has been a fixture on both the European and U.S. tours for more than a decade, has won millions, has been the top dog on the European Tour twice — winner of the Order of Merit — and is the veteran on this European Ryder Cup team with six previous appearances.

Yet his image is as golf's best man, the guy who never quite makes the altar. The other guy gets the girl and Westwood gives the toast at the wedding.

He has been in contention for major titles repeatedly, with the big trophy always going to somebody else. He has mastered the art of standing and smiling at the awards ceremonies, as he did as this year's runner-up to British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.

Coming into the PGA at Whistling Straits in August, Westwood had been second or third in four of the previous five golf Grand Slam events.

But his result at the PGA was vastly different, and it may turn out to be the beginning of the end of his status as Mr. Almost.

By choice, Westwood didn't play in the PGA.

He was injured, but he probably could have played. Tiger Woods limped around for 91 holes on a broken leg and won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008. Westwood's injury, a torn muscle alongside his Achilles tendon in his right calf, wasn't as bad as Woods'. But then, his motivation for not playing was not so much pain as it was a vision of the future.

Westwood knew that, only with extended rest, would he be healed and whole for this Ryder Cup. So he went home, spent some time in the working class city of Worksop, population 40,000, where he grew up and where his mother runs a floral shop, and rested and rehabilitated the leg.

It was a gamble, a seven-week wager of lost golf revenue. It was a venture into unknown territory for somebody who had never been injured before.

"When you go through a rehabilitation process, some weeks it moves quickly," Westwood said. "Other weeks, you don't see much improvement …It's just because it's something I've never been through before and you don't know what to expect."

Westwood said he thinks he knows now, especially after his first practice round on the Twenty Ten Course Tuesday, when he birdied four of the first five holes. He said that he is healed and can play all five Ryder Cup matches. if needed.

European Captain Colin Montgomerie has made it clear that Westwood is his leader and anchor. Thursday, he backed up his words. At the opening ceremonies, Montgomerie announced that Westwood would be in the first foursome out at 7:45 a.m., teamed with PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany against Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

"The honor should go to Lee Westwood, to hit the first shot for Europe," Montgomerie said.

The other foursome pairings have Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy taking on Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar in pairing No. 2, followed by Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher against Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, and Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington against an all-rookie U.S. team of Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton.

Those results may be final as you read this. Afternoon pairings are announced after morning play.

For Westwood, the decision to take time off to heal for the Ryder Cup, rather than limp and grind on through, can pay nice dividends on his Ryder resume, which already includes a 14-10-5 record. But it can also, surprisingly, get him to a very strange position: No. 1. His world ranking is No. 3 now, and will become No. 2 Monday, replacing Mickelson in golf's complicated formula of both points won, as well as defended from last year.

Woods has been No. 1 for 277 weeks, and has hung onto that despite a mediocre season. But with Westwood playing in a couple of events in Europe in the weeks ahead, plus a tournament in Shanghai that will also likely feature Woods and Mickelson, the numbers crunching indicates that Westwood is likely to get to No. 1.

"Nobody's stepped up to the plate, grasped the bat and run away with it from me," Westwood said. "I'm quite fortunate in that regard."

The stars seem aligned now for the second fiddle to take the first chair. He understands he is the leader, he wants the baton and he is talking the talk.

"I suppose I've got the most experience [on the European team and can] try and show them how it is done," he said. "I think we have 11 great players that are well capable of following me through there."

Shrinking violets don't get to the top of the mountain, and Westwood's words were clear about that. If he makes it, the British press may have to dig deep and revise.

How about "golf's resurrected runner-up?"

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Ryder Cup

When: Today-Sunday.

Where: Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales.

Television (all times EDT): Today, 3 a.m. to 1 p.m., ESPN. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., NBC. Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., NBC.

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