COMMENTARY | Will 2013 finally bring some luck to Lee Westwood?
Only Colin Montgomerie has endured more "best player to never win a major" criticism than the Englishman. A tie for ninth under difficult conditions at the Honda Classic -- Westwood's best showing in four U.S. starts this year -- bodes well for his run-up to the Masters.
"It's sharp,'' Westwood said of his play after the Honda Classic's third round. "I'm rolling some nice putts in now and again, and I'm happy with where my game is at. I feel like I'm gradually improving and all of the short game work is paying off."
If not for his weekend struggles on the par-5 18th hole at PGA National, Westwood could have finished even higher in a tournament overshadowed by the surprise withdrawal of Ryder Cup teammate Rory McIlroy.
Westwood has come agonizingly close in at least a half dozen majors over recent years, but ultimately he's become the footnote to some of golf's most compelling storylines:
- In 2008, he finished a shot out of an 18-hole playoff at the U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods while playing through the pain of a broken leg.
- In 2009, Westwood bogeyed three of the last four holes at the Open Championship at Turnberry to again miss a playoff by a stroke. Stewart Cink vanquished 59-year-old Tom Watson in that one.
- In 2010, he was the 54-hole leader at the Masters but was lapped in the final round by a surging Phil Mickelson, who dedicated the victory to his cancer-stricken wife Amy.
- In 2011, Westwood finished a distant third at the U.S. Open that served as McIlroy's record-breaking coming out party.
"I've put myself in position a lot but just haven't finished it up,'' he said.
Westwood has compiled a distinguished worldwide record with 37 wins, but just two have come on American soil -- a fact he referenced last week in Florida. He has been criticized for staying away from the PGA Tour in favor of chasing hefty appearance fees at such far-flung tournaments as the Indonesian Masters and Thailand Golf Championship.
"Well, I think if you look at my career, I haven't won enough over in the States, anyway,'' Westwood said. "It's not a case of wanting to win here, it's a case of wanting to win more on this tour."
His U.S. profile and travel schedule should change for the better after setting up a permanent home base in the preferred stomping grounds of the game's elite: Palm Beach County, Fla. Westwood was completing a move into a compound at Old Palm in Palm Beach Gardens during Honda Classic week.
As I wrote last week prior to the Honda Classic, the new Florida address affords Westwood year-round access to state-of-the-art practice facilities and plenty of friendly matches with the likes of European tour mates McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Ernie Els. He expects less travel and getting accustomed to different time zones will pay dividends on the golf course.
"Having moved here and giving myself more opportunities to play here, I can start winning more," Westwood said.
He's giving himself more chances with the busiest PGA Tour schedule of his career. Westwood will have made seven U.S. starts before the Masters this year and plans to add the Wells Fargo Championship, Memorial Tournament and AT&T National to a slate that includes selective Euro tour appearances.
Westwood turns 40 two weeks after the Masters, so the prime playing years are dwindling for the 8-time Ryder Cup participant and former world No. 1. With Tiger Woods still showing vulnerability in the majors, now is the time to capitalize.
A pinpoint long game makes the U.S. Open the logical choice for Westwood to end his major drought but he's also fared well at Augusta National with a T3, T11 and second in the last three Masters. He won't have to contend with rough around the greens and knowledge of Augusta's slick, sloped putting surfaces should serve him well come April.
If he falls short at Augusta, Westwood has to like his chances at the U.S. Open. The national championship returns to Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia for the first time in 32 years. Merion is a modern-day rarity that will play under 7,000 yards, placing a premium on accuracy over power -- a setup that should reward Westwood's ball striking. The Englishman ranked third on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation last year and 10th in total driving. He continues to stripe it off the tee in 2013 but has been less accurate with his irons.
But it won't matter how many fairways and greens he finds if Westwood continues to struggle with the putter. The Englishman has cracked the top 100 in the strokes-gained-putting statistic just once in the last five years. His flat-stick work has improved in 2013, and he'll need plenty of clutch putts to drop if he hopes to break through in golf's grand slam.
Recent moves by Westwood speak to the Englishman's desperation to find a workable, major-ready short game. He ditched long-time coach Pete Cowen after missing the cut at the 2012 PGA Championship and split with new instructor Tony Johnstone after less than three months together last fall.
He's slowly making progress with his short game. Westwood was leading the field in scrambling through the first three rounds of the Honda Classic and showed some deft touch out of the wiry Bermuda around PGA National's greens.
"I normally get a bit of stick for not having a short game, but I chipped inside this week and a lot of sand saves and a lot of scrambling like you need to do around this golf course," Westwood noted. "Maybe I'm turning that around."
Westwood will need to bring it all together to swap the "where's the major" label for a green jacket.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for FoxSports.com, the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and New York Post. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.