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The Two Careers of Lee Westwood

Dermot Gilleece looks back on the World Number One's First bout with heady heights

Posted May 03, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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Lee Westwood is having a remarkable golfing career.  Actually it’s two careers, come to think of it.  The first one extended from 1996, when the Scandinavian Masters gave him his first European victory, until the end of 2003.  And after a remarkably fallow period when he dropped to as low as 75th in the European money list, his second career can be traced effectively from 2007 until the present.

Given his current status as world number one, it is especially interesting to turn back the clock to one of the most notable victories of career number one.  It came in July 1999, three months after he had squandered his first chance of capturing the US Masters.  This was his stunning triumph in the Smurfit European Open in which he rallied from seven strokes behind his best friend, Darren Clarke, to capture the title with a final round of 65.  Clarke, who had scored a sizzling 60 to lead the tournament at halfway, eventually finished tied second, three strokes back.

A measure of Westwood’s toughness at that stage was the way he delighted in silencing the home crowd, while depriving his pal of the most lucrative winning cheque on this side of the Atlantic, outside of the Open Championship.  The reward of £226,185 assured the then 26-year-old Englishman of tournament earnings in excess of £3 million that year.

Given the margin of Clarke’s 54-hole lead, there were obvious echoes of Greg Norman's collapse to Nick Faldo in the 1996 US Masters.  Meanwhile, it meant a 16th tournament victory for Westwood, in the space of only three years, almost to the day. And coming only eight days after his victory in the Dutch Open, it confirmed his status as the sixth-ranked player in the world, at that time.

The 12-year lapse since then, gives a certain poignancy to his comments on what was then his biggest tournament comeback. "Darren's a good friend of mine but where wasn't a lot I could say to him," said Westwood. "I've had my own disappointments, like in the Irish Open at Druids Glen two years ago, when I led Monty by three strokes after 54 holes and he finished with a 62."

He went on: "With a six-stroke lead, people seemed to think that Darren had things more or less wrapped up. But they didn’t appear to realise that when someone comes at you, it's very hard to re-group and focus on the things you were doing when you shot 60 and 66. Remembering what happened to me in the Irish Open, I turned to Monty (his playing partner, Colin Montgomerie) on the putting green before we set off today and I said 'If you could do it to me, it can be done.'"

On that fateful occasion, Westwood entered the final round in third position, a stroke behind Australian, Peter O'Malley, who eventually shared second place with the Irishman.  In the Dutch the previous week, Westwood had been five behind Gary Orr entering the final round and shot a closing 63 to win by one.

Meanwhile, Clarke was acutely aware of the weight of expectation from enthusiastic galleries, especially after his exploits of the previous two days. "I would love to have won for all the people who cheered me on," he said afterwards. "Maybe I'll finish the job the next time."  Which, in fact he did, two years later, when he won the European Open by three strokes from Ian Woosnam, Padraig Harrington and Thomas Bjorn in a share of second place.

In 1999, however, Clarke’s collapse made for a decidedly muted occasion. Still, Westwood was unconcerned. "I thought the crowds were fantastic," he said. "It always fires me up when I set about trying to quieten partisan home galleries."  Then, with observations that wouldn’t have been out of place on each of the last two weekends, he added: "I'm feeling very confident about my game right now. I'm hitting quality shots when it matters, for example my three wood into the last, which wasn't a piece of cake. But I started it exactly where I wanted to and drew it into the heart of the green. That's not an easy shot under the pressure of winning.”

This was Westwood Mark I, whose highest point was winning the Order of Merit title in 2000.  We can but imagine what Westwood Mark II will accomplish.

- Dermot Gilleece

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