Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2020

Time Marches On, As Does Lee Westwood

In the autumn of 2000, the New York Yankees had just cemented their status as a dynasty by winning a fourth championship in five years, the New England Patriots had never won a Super Bowl, the New York Knicks were less than two years removed from playing for an NBA title, and the continuation of American democracy was a given, even in the wake of an election that was genuinely close, unlike our recent one. All of which says a lot can change in twenty years. But some things, even when separated by 7,336 days, stay the same.

One other achievement in the world of sports during that fall of 2000, little noticed on this side of the Atlantic, was the climb to the top of European men’s golf by Lee Westwood, a 27-year-old baby-faced Englishman. Westwood didn’t take up the old game until his teenage years, but quickly showed great promise by winning regional junior championships. In the summer of 1993, he won the British Youths Open Amateur Championship, a tournament that counted Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabel and Nick Faldo among its previous titleholders. Westwood then promptly turned pro.

The transition to full-time touring golf professional does not go smoothly for every talented amateur. Justin Rose has been ranked number one in the world and has a major title on his resume, but when he turned pro after an electrifying performance and a fourth-place finish as an 18-year-old amateur at the 1998 Open Championship, Rose missed 21 straight cuts on the European Tour. In contrast Westwood’s venture into the professional ranks was considerably less humbling. He entered the European Tour winner’s circle for the first time at the 1996 Volvo Scandinavian Masters, scored another victory the following season, then won four times in Europe and once on the PGA Tour in 1998. That was the year he also – not surprisingly – entered the top ten in the world rankings for the first time.

As his success in Europe continued, it was not exactly a surprise when, at the end of the 2000 European Tour season, Westwood was atop the Order of Merit, the official money list that back then determined the winner of the Harry Vardon Trophy as the Tour’s top golfer of the year. What was surprising was that Westwood, after a five-victory campaign that season, didn’t post another Tour win until 2003. But he chose to take a break after the birth of his first child, then decided to retool his swing, always a process fraught with danger for a top pro. In Westwood’s case, the voluntary time away from the game followed by the long process of changing his mechanics combined to send him plunging down the rankings, all the way to the nether world of largely anonymous professional golfers, a spot outside the top 250.

For some pros such a decline is irreversible, but Westwood came back. Even while managing just a pair of wins over a six-year stretch, he played on, finally returning to top form in 2007. A year later the computer models declared him resurrected by ranking him once again in the top 20, and in 2009, on the strength of consistent play and a pair of victories, Westwood won the Tour’s inaugural Race to Dubai, a season-long points race similar to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup that is now used to annually crown Europe’s top golfer. Lest anyone doubt that achievement, given the European Tour’s lesser standing to golf fans in this country, in 2010 Westwood climbed to the top of the world rankings while winning on both Tours.

Of course, by this time he was no longer the chubby-cheeked youngster who had so seamlessly transitioned from amateur to pro in the early ‘90s and gone on to dominate European golf. Okay, the cheeks were still a bit chubby, but Westwood’s hair now had a few flecks of gray, a reminder that he was in his late thirties. So when in this past decade his shots became less crisp and the wins first dwindled before seeming to stop, the decline, unlike his earlier one, was deemed the natural product of aging. Yet still he played on, the familiar Ping staff bag a regular sight at both European Tour stops and several times in the U.S. each season.

But if fans on both sides of the Atlantic assumed that Westwood was simply biding his time awaiting the senior tour, it’s now apparent he had other ideas. In late 2018 he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge, part of the European Tour’s swing through South Africa, beating Sergio Garcia by three strokes. It was his first title in more than four years, and after the final putt was holed a tearful Westwood admitted there were times he doubted whether another victory was in the cards. Then last January, with COVID-19 still just a gathering storm, Westwood claimed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship three months before his 47th birthday, for his 25th European Tour win.

The points he earned for that victory, plus consistent play both before and after the Tour’s pandemic break, brought Westwood to Dubai and the DP Tour World Championship with a shot at one more Harry Vardon Trophy. When he saved par from the bunker at the 72nd hole on Sunday, giving him sole possession of 2nd place on the leader board behind tournament winner Matthew Fitzpatrick, Westwood was assured of the points he needed to once again be the season’s top golfer, twenty years after he first held the crown and just over a decade since his encore.

With his pattern of winning this title every ten years or so, it may not be next season, but Westwood made it plain that he isn’t done just yet. “I get up each day and do the job I love. I’ve always wanted to be a golfer and I don’t want it to end,” he told the media Sunday. “So I’m prepared to keep working hard and put myself in the line of fire and try and get into contention in tournaments. It’s where I’m most comfortable and what I love doing,” he added. Less than three years shy of fifty, Westwood is the oldest golfer to claim the European crown. That’s a record that should stand for a good long while, maybe even until he wins again in 2030.


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