Lee Westwood's Masters dream dies before it gets going after wayward first-round 78

Lee Westwood - Lee Westwood faces battle to keep Masters dream alive after wayward first-round 78 - GETTY IMAGES
Lee Westwood - Lee Westwood faces battle to keep Masters dream alive after wayward first-round 78 - GETTY IMAGES

Was it the call to swap in son Sam for fiancee Helen Storey on the bag? Did playing with defending champion Dustin Johnson somehow unnerve him? Perhaps the decision to rest up last week robbed him of momentum?

Whatever it was, after all the hype, the hope, the incredible form in the build-up, there was something particularly cruel about watching Lee Westwood labour his way around Augusta on Thursday. Back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players last month, which had propelled him back into the world’s top 20, had given rise to hopes that Westwood might actually break his major duck this week. The Masters has always suited his game and placid temperament.

Instead, a disastrous first-round 78 threatens Westwood’s presence in any capacity this weekend, let alone any chance of contending on Sunday.

It was cruel because it was so unexpected. This genuinely felt like it could have been Westwood’s time. Should have been his time.

Of course, the odds were heavily stacked against him. Jack Nicklaus, at 46, remains the oldest ever winner of the green jacket. Westwood will be 48 later this month. And while Augusta has been known to produce its fair share of feelgood stories down the years, this is no country for old men. Particularly in its present, merciless state.

But such has been Westwood’s form, and so often has he placed well at the Masters (the 47-year-old was runner-up to Phil Mickelson in 2010, third in 2012 — two shots out of the play-off won by Bubba Watson — and runner-up again to Danny Willett in 2016), it felt a safe bet that he would put a tidy round or two together.

It took just three holes for the bubble to burst. After missed birdie opportunities at one and two — how different might it have been had one of those very makeable putts dropped — a double-bogey six at the third, in which Westwood chose to play iron off the tee, for the extra control, only to find the trees on the right, was the first sign that this was going to be a grind. Westwood would hit a branch trying to escape, before three-putting when he did finally reach the green.

From there, things rapidly went downhill. Bogeys at five, seven and nine saw Westwood reach the turn in 40, with a solitary birdie at the par-five eighth the only crumb of comfort as son Sam looked on aghast.

Lee Westwood talks with his caddie and son, Samuel Westwood, on the sixth hole - GETTY IMAGES
Lee Westwood talks with his caddie and son, Samuel Westwood, on the sixth hole - GETTY IMAGES

Westwood had spoken in the build-up of fiancee Helen Storey’s ability to keep him relaxed out on course.

In an insightful joint interview with this newspaper earlier this week, the couple revealed their modus operandi. “We talk about any old nonsense out there,” Storey said. “Anything but golf. To me, it’s just a lovely walk with Lee around a big field. Like I tell him if he’s looking glum, ‘Hey, nobody’s died, there’s no dramatic music playing in the background’.”

Westwood, who is fulfilling a long-held promise to 19-year-old son Sam, admitted it was a “different” vibe when he had his boy on the bag. “Sam is a decent player, off scratch, so it’s different,” he said. “Because while Helen and I avoid the ‘golf stuff’, when I’m with Sam I am actually trying to give him a lesson without him realising.”

Thursday’s lesson was brutal but perhaps as valuable as any other as Westwood, usually so reliable tee to green, struggled to find position on hole after hole. Further bogeys at 10 and 12 saw him plummet to six-over. And while he clawed a shot back at the par-five 15th — a brilliant 211-yard second over the water giving him an eagle putt — he gave it back again on 17, again going right off the tee and finding the pine needles.

It could have been uglier still. Westwood actually dropped his driver after hitting his tee shot on 18. It turned out to be one of his better drives. It was that sort of a day - he just never looked comfortable.

Understandably, he didn’t stop for interviews afterwards. The former world No 1 has a proud record here, having made the cut 16 times in 19 appearances. He has his work cut out extending that run this week. Even Ian Woosnam is two shots better off than him, and the Welshman, it turned out, had pulled muscles in his groin and back before play even got under way.

Augusta’s patrons will be willing him on. The fairytale first major may be beyond him but all of golf will hope that Westwood can rediscover the touch, and even more so the carefree attitude he exhibited last month, when he tees it up on Friday.