Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 19, 2012

Open’s First Round Puts A Damper On Local Hopes

While it is true that golf tournaments are neither won nor lost on Thursday, the results of the first round of this year’s Open Championship were surely not what English golf fans had in mind. For the second year in a row golf’s oldest major is being contested on one of the four courses of the nine in the regular Open rota that are located on English soil. That fact, together with the specific venue for this Open, Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s Golf Club on the country’s northwest coast, served to remind all of England that it has now been more than four decades since an English golfer won the Open on English soil. It was on the Lytham links in 1969 that Tony Jacklin became “the Champion Golfer of the Year” by defeating New Zealand’s Bob Charles by two strokes. In the decades since Nick Faldo remains the only Englishman to prevail at the Open and he won all three of his Claret Jugs at courses in Scotland.

Native hopes are particularly high this year because there are currently three English golfers within the top nine positions in the Official World Golf Rankings, #1 Luke Donald, #3 Lee Westwood, and #9 Justin Rose. A fourth Englishman, Ian Poulter, sits at #28 in the rankings. Four out of the top twenty-eight in the rankings is twice as many as any other country except the United States; and especially with Donald and Westwood, along with Northern Ireland’s and world #2 Rory McIlroy trading spots at the top of the rankings for the past several months now, who could blame fans in London or Liverpool from thinking that this might at last be the year when the long local drought finally ends.

With three rounds still to go it’s too early to conclude that it won’t happen, but none of England’s big four made his task any easier on Thursday. None of them broke par, with Donald’s level-par round of 70 the best of the lot. He at least was in red numbers until a bogey at the last dropped him back to even. That puts him in a tie for 37th with three rounds to play, six shots behind opening round leader Adam Scott of Australia.

Poulter sits one stroke back of Donald in a tie for 54th after opening with a 71. At least both Donald and Poulter played steady golf, as the former recorded sixteen pars and the latter made fifteen. But the benign conditions at Lytham and the forecast for generally good weather through the weekend make it unlikely that simply making pars will be good enough to win.

Although for Westwood and Rose, a few more pars would have been a very welcome thing. Westwood started strongly with a pair of birdies on the first two holes, but then promptly gave both strokes back with a double-bogey on the 3rd. Still he made the turn at 1-under par, before a disastrous back-nine 40 sent him tumbling down the leaderboard. The low point of his four bogeys on the inward side came at the 14th, where he was forced to play left-handed out of a greenside bunker. Asked after the round if he had practiced the shot, Westwood said “Yeah, I practice it all the time, yeah, left-handed out of the bunker. What a stupid question. I can’t remember the last time I had to play a left-handed shot, never mind out of a bunker.” It’s a tribute to his equanimity that despite finding himself in a tie for 99th after his opening 73, Westwood was laughing when he characterized the question, accurately enough, as stupid.

Rose’s round was essentially the opposite of Westwood’s, as he made five bogeys on the front nine to turn in 39, before making eight pars and his round’s lone birdie on the back to post a 4-over par 74; a score that leaves him trailing 114 other players.

For Westwood and Rose the immediate challenge is moving up the leaderboard on Friday enough to get inside the cut line so that they can play all four rounds. That may prove difficult as both have afternoon tee times for the second round. If conditions for the second round are similar to Thursday, the best scoring opportunities will come in the morning. Of course that makes their first round scores all the worse, since that’s when they both played on Thursday. All four English stars desperately need to get under par and stay there if the local hopes are to be kept alive. With thirty-six players breaking par on Thursday, led by Scott’s 6-under 64 which matched the course record, it’s already clear that the winning total for this Open come Sunday afternoon will likely be a double-digit figure below par.

If in the end the hopes of England are once again dashed, surely the pain will be the sharpest for Westwood. The only one of the four English stars to make his full-time home in England, he has had essentially two careers. He was a young star in his 20’s, winning his first European Tour event at the age of 23. Over a three year stretch beginning in the summer of 1998 he spent 160 weeks in the top-10 in the World Rankings. Then his game deserted him and less than a year later he had fallen out of the top-100. But rather than disappear Westwood improved his fitness and continued to work on his game, and by late in the 2009 season he was back in the top-10. One year later he became the first golfer not named Tiger to top the rankings in more than five years. Beginning with the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, Westwood has recorded eight top-10 finishes in the last twelve majors, including two second place finishes and four thirds. Other than a missed cut at last year’s Open and not playing at the 2010 PGA Championship, Westwood’s worse finish in a major in three years is 16th place at the 2010 U.S. Open.

After repeatedly coming so close, and with thirty-nine professional wins around the world plus time spent ranked #1, it is Lee Westwood who carries the unwelcome title of best golfer to have not won a major. He knows it, and has said repeatedly that having come close so often, he believes his time will come. For golf fans Westwood seems a likable guy with a ready smile and a quick wit in the interview room, making it easy to hope that he proves right. But Lee Westwood is also 39 years old, and he surely must know that at some point soon the window of opportunity will start to close. To the dismay of English golf fans, his opening round at Royal Lytham, like that of his fellow native heroes, did nothing to help prop it open.

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Responses

  1. I wrote a piece on Westwood myself the other day at http://wp.me/p2gCVr-lz but after such a poor opening round it’s difficult to see him getting back in contention. That’s a shame because despite the world rankings and success in Ryder Cups, golfers tend to be remembered for their performances in the majors. The Northern Irish boys have shown the way recently but generally our major record is disappointing on this side of the Atlantic. There have been many top players who have gone close but lacked that missing ingredient to get over the line. Perhaps Westwood is destined to become another Monty!


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