It sounded like gamesmanship or hype--maybe both--when Ryder Cup
captain Seve Ballesteros, while announcing his lineup for last
fall's matches, called baby-faced Lee Westwood the Tiger Woods
of Europe. The 24-year-old Westwood made Ballesteros look like a
prophet by carrying his partner, steely veteran Nick Faldo, to a
pair of wins at Valderrama, including one over Woods and Mark
O'Meara, during Europe's stunning upset defeat of the U.S.
During the next two months Westwood won three tournaments,
including the European tour's season-ending Volvo Masters and
the Australian Open, in which he beat Greg Norman in a playoff.
Last week, at the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans, it
was the Englishman's turn at English Turn Golf and Country Club
to do what five-time Euro tour money leader Colin Montgomerie
hasn't been able to--win in the U.S. Westwood coasted home on
Sunday with a 15-under-par 273 for a three-stroke victory over
rookie lefthander Steve Flesch.
British golf is littered with next great
hopes--where-are-they-nows like Peter Baker, Steve Richardson
and Paul Way immediately spring to mind--yet while the
comparison to Woods might be over the top, Westwood's record
says that he's the real deal. He hasn't finished worse than 30th
in seven starts in the U.S. and has seven wins on four
continents. (Stay tuned, Africa.)
In this golden age of gifted youngsters, it's time to add
Westwood's name to those of Ernie Els, David Duval, Justin
Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Woods. "I read a couple of articles
that compared him to Tiger, and that's a good comparison," Els
says. "He hits the ball closer to Tiger than I do. He's a player
to watch, definitely. I think he's got what it takes."
Former PGA champion Wayne Grady was convinced after playing the
first two days at English Turn with Westwood, who opened with
rounds of 69 and 68 despite not having made many putts. "He's
typical of the new order--big and strong, but with a short game
to match his length," says Grady. "There's nothing missing from
the entire package. This boy is going to be around a long, long
time. What's more, he's a nice kid."
With his round cheeks and toothy grin, Westwood looks like a
15-year-old Boy Scout to some, but his long, straight drives,
aggressive approach shots, deft putting touch and unfaltering
confidence make him seem like a natural for a green jacket.
Westwood is better than a long shot this week at Augusta. As a
Masters rookie last year, he opened with a nervous double bogey
and bogey on the way to a 77 but came back with a 71 to make the
cut. On Sunday, paired with Jack Nicklaus, Westwood birdied two
of the final three holes to shoot 70 and slip into the top 24,
thus earning this year's invite. He was excited to play with
Nicklaus--he bought a 1986 Masters poster and pulled it out of
his bag for Nicklaus to sign after the round--but hardly awed.
When Nicklaus got off to a bad start and weakly joked, "Sorry to
hold you up," Westwood patted golf's greatest player on the back
and said, "Don't worry about it. You'll be all right."
Westwood is not only hard to impress, he's nearly impervious.
Like Faldo and Ben Hogan, he seems oblivious to anyone else on
the course. Unlike Faldo and Hogan, Westwood smiles a lot. "His
attitude on the course is fabulous," says Montgomerie. "His
mental ability to put things behind him and get on with it is
probably his best asset. Faldo will tell you the way he
performed at the Ryder Cup."
Westwood was tested last Saturday by gusting, uneven winds. He
made birdies on four of the first seven holes to move into
contention, then bogeyed the next two. At the formidable 10th, a
420-yard par-4 with water on the left, the wind was howling from
right to left, creating a perfect situation for a blowup.
Instead, Westwood split the fairway with his drive, hit a
seven-iron 18 feet from the hole and made the birdie putt.
A bigger test came on Sunday after Westwood had built a
five-shot lead. At the 14th hole his seven-iron approach ran
through the fringe and perched on the edge of the rough.
Westwood chose to use his putter, but when he stroked the ball,
it popped into the air and came back down on his club, causing a
double hit. His ball dribbled forward and stopped 12 feet short
of the hole.
Such a gaffe might have unnerved a lesser player. Westwood
immediately reported the infraction to Duffy Waldorf, his
playing partner, and then faced the tough bogey putt. "He never
even flinched," said Flesch, shaking his head. "He ran it right
in the gut. That was impressive. He seems fearless."
A good athlete, Westwood took up golf at 13, when he was
inspired by watching Nicklaus's performance in the '86 Masters.
"Before, I thought golf was an old man's game," Westwood says.
He and his father, a math teacher and a novice golfer, both
birdied a hole the first time they played and were hooked.
Westwood had a scratch handicap a few years later, by which time
he was one of the best players in Worksop, a mill town in
England's Midlands. Like many of England's tour pros, Westwood
quit school when he was 16 to take up the game.
Westwood is self-assured but doesn't come off as full of
himself, as Montgomerie sometimes does. Westwood is
matter-of-fact when he says he has no short-term goals but
long-term intends to be the best player in the world. Ask if
that goal is within reach, and Westwood says, "I don't think
it's unrealistic to think I can be Number 1. There's no point in
Westwood plays with an aggressiveness born of confidence. The
15th at English Turn, for example, is a reachable par 5 with an
island green, and on Sunday, Westwood's caddie, on his bag that
week for the first time, suggested that his man lay up off the
tee with a two-iron to protect his lead. Westwood vetoed that,
pulled out his driver and poured a tee shot down the middle,
leaving a 240-yard approach. The caddie again mentioned
something about laying up, but Westwood wouldn't listen. "I
said, 'No, no, you've got me all wrong,'" he said. Instead, he
played a five-iron shot to 20 feet and was miffed when he missed
his eagle putt.
"If I were him, I would have laid up on 15, but as good as he
was hitting it, that green probably looked a mile wide," said
Flesch. "He hits a lot of good shots when he has to. He hits the
ball straight--it doesn't curve--and when I've played with him,
he has rolled in putts from everywhere."
The 542-yard 15th wasn't quite as easy as Westwood, who birdied
it all four days, made it appear. On Saturday the hole played
straight downwind, and the pin was cut on the front edge. Even
if a player laid up, anything less than a perfect wedge shot
resulted in a challenging 50- or 60-foot birdie putt. Fulton
Allem was one under when he came to the hole and seven over when
he left it, having hit four balls into the water on his way to a
13. Scott Verplank hit three balls into the drink and made an 11.
The conditions were difficult for everyone on Saturday. The
strong winds dried out the greens, and some of the pin positions
on Nicklaus's humpty-dumpty design were as friendly as an IRS
auditor. "I didn't see one pin to shoot at the first seven
holes--and Lee was four under," said Steve Lowery, who was
paired with Westwood. "There weren't any birdie holes unless you
hit something kind of crazy, and he did that a couple of times."
Westwood's 67, given the conditions and the pins, was the
equivalent of a 63 or 64. Only Davis Love III, who shot 66 after
barely making the cut, had a better round, but Love played in
one of the early twosomes before the winds reached peak nastiness.
The tournament, serving as a Masters tuneup for the final
time--the event will have new dates (in May) and a new sponsor
(Entergy) next year--drew only 24 of the players who will be in
Augusta this week. Sixteen of them made the cut. Those who
didn't included Ballesteros and Tom Lehman. The wind and the
high rough put a premium on accurate tee shots, the lack of
which caused Ballesteros's downfall. He scraped out a 73 in the
first round, then hit only three fairways and four greens on
Friday. Ballesteros hit an amazingly errant drive at the 10th
hole that cleared the skyboxes around the 18th green. He still
made par after getting a free drop. Seve tersely described his
play as "up and down" after the round.
The biggest ups and downs, though, belonged to Flesch, a
graduate of the Nike tour who saved pars on the last three holes
to earn $183,600 and assure himself of at least one more year on
the big Tour. Flesch, 30, leads the Tour in greens hit in
regulation and the previous week had come in second in the Nike
Louisiana Open. He opened 66-68 and, despite being slowed by a
cough and the flu, finished with a pair of solid 71s. "I've
tried to get out here for so long," he said. "To stay in
contention all week gives me the confidence that I can stay out
here a while. I'm thrilled to finish second."
Westwood, meanwhile, is setting his sights somewhat higher. "The
next step is a major, definitely," he says. Coincidentally,
there's one this week. The New Orleans-Augusta double has been
done before. In 1991, Ian Woosnam won at English Turn and at the
Masters. "Back-to-back is as good as anything," Westwood says,
only half in jest.
game," says Grady.
definitely," he says.