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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been a long Florida fortnight for a man of a certain age.
At 47 years old and trending, Lee Westwood couldn’t hide the fatigue that back-to-back weeks in contention on the PGA Tour can produce.
“Everybody keeps telling me how old I am,” he smiled following a long day battling a group of twenty-somethings.
He didn’t win The Players Championship. That honor went to 27-year-old Justin Thomas. But the clever Englishman did manage to post his second consecutive runner-up finish in as many weeks and drastically change his narrative for the next few months.
Westwood started the year on the radar of European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington – not as a player, but as a vice captain. But after the last two weeks, Harrington is likely starting to look at potential pairings for the veteran of 10 matches representing Team Europe.
You could call this a second act for Westwood, but it’s more like his third, or maybe even his fourth, depending on who is counting.
He climbed to fifth in the world as a young man in the late 1990s, only to plummet outside the top 200 by 2003. A year later he’d regained his form, and he’s spent the better part of the last two decades inside the top 50, including a 22-week run as the game’s top-ranked player in 2010-11.
But these were supposed to be his golden years. He served as a Ryder Cup vice captain in 2018 in Paris and began this season a full decade removed from his last PGA Tour victory, although there has been sustained success on the European Tour, including last year’s weighty victory in Abu Dhabi.
Few outside of Team Westy would have predicted this run of form, but it’s not difficult to explain the last two weeks. It was there etched across his admittedly weathered face on the week’s final hole, where he’d just rolled in a 15-footer for birdie and embraced his fiancée and caddie, Helen Storey.
Storey’s impact as a sounding board/sports psychologist/life coach is evident to all. Even DeChambeau, whose specialty is normally math and critical thinking, knows a confidant when he sees one.
“I think Helen is a big part of it,” DeChambeau said when asked what impressed him most about Westwood’s game. “She's keeping him steady and levelheaded, and she's a rock. Keeps his mind focused on the right things, and she's been awesome for him, and that's one of his secret weapons.”
Even with his secret weapon by his side, Westwood came up just short for the second consecutive Sunday. His closing 72 at TPC Sawgrass left him alone in second place and a stroke behind Thomas. Last week at Bay Hill it was DeChambeau, another 27-year-old, who clipped him.
With age comes perspective.
“I'm 48 in a month's time, and I'm still out here contending for tournaments and playing in final groups with great players like Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas and people like that,” Westwood said. “It's just a joy to be involved and still playing well and being able to contend.”
With age also comes a good amount of subtext. This was more than just another solid week at the Tour’s flagship event for Westwood. His play puts a bow on his complicated relationship with The Players. In 2011, the then-world No. 1 made headlines when he very publicly skipped the championship. It was a protest move born from a Tour rule that limited non-members to 10 starts.
Westwood has since become a staple at The Players with a ball-striking game that’s a perfect fit for TPC Position Golf.
The anatomy of this particular near-miss rests with, of all things, two layups that cost Westwood his third Tour title. His second shot from the trees at the par-5 second hole clipped a branch and found the water, leading to a disappointing bogey. On the 16th hole, Westwood wasn’t much better with a second shot that found a fairway bunker and a scrambling par when he desperately needed a birdie to keep pace with Thomas.
“I probably had my ‘C’ game today, and grinding it out,” admitted Westwood, who played the crucial final three holes on Sunday in even par.
There is a predictable ebb and flow to life on Sundays at Tour events. Thomas was filled with joy following his victory. DeChambeau was predictably, and understandably, dour following a scrappy closing round that left him tied for third place. And then there was Westwood, who is cut from a different cloth, one of great maturity and perspective, which explains why when the Tour restarted last June, Westwood remained in the U.K. for months and skipped the PGA Championship.
Do you enjoy the game, Lee?
“I do enjoy the game more. I take it for what it is: a game,” he shrugged. “We're just trying to get a little white ball into a little white hole. It gets treated far too seriously occasionally. With what's going on in the world, it's fun to be doing a job that I love and that I've done for 28 years, and I'm still doing it.
“You've got to have realities in your life, and my life is full of reality, yeah.”
The grey in Westwood’s beard gives his age away, but it’s the knowing smile that offers a glimpse into how 47 years can shape one’s perspective.
Another runner-up finish.
Another chance to feel the rush of a Sunday in contention.
Another opportunity that’s worth savoring.