ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | We’ve heard the remarks about getting older. Phyllosan fortifies the over 40s; life begins at 40; 50 is the new 40. Another is “you’re not as good as you once were but once you’re as good as you were.” Lee Westwood, 47 in three months’ time, is familiar with them all but the one he liked most was one he heard down in the desert on Sunday evening as darkness gathered outside and stars glittered in a coal-black sky. After he had won his 25th event on the European tour and his 44th worldwide, someone said to the bearded Englishman: “Now you have won victories on the European Tour in four decades.” With a broad grin on his face he replied: “That’s the one.”
Truth be told, there had been a noticeable aura around Westwood all week. On Saturday afternoon, when he was in the thick of contention in the third round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and walking from the ninth green to the 10th tee, he saw a journalist. In similar situations, most players would have been stony-faced, eyes firmly ahead, mind concentrating on the next hole. Indeed, on other occasions Westwood might have done the same thing. Not this time. Smiling at the journalist, Westwood nodded and mumbled some words of greeting.
This was a sign that Westwood was composed and relaxed. All last week he showed what he had learned from playing top-class golf for more than a quarter century, for helping Europe to victory in seven of the 10 Ryder Cups in which he has played, for being one of only 23 men to have topped the world ranking. He showed that hard work had paid off. He didn’t lie by the pool and have a beer. He was usually one of the last to leave the practice ground.
“I don’t really get too wound up. I have become more analytical and less emotional on the golf course. ... That has served me well.”
The most important thing he knew was that he could cope with pressure. Nothing much bothered him, not leading after 54 holes, not leading after 70 holes, not being one of the oldest men in the field. This combined knowledge would help him to defeat a field comprising five of the world’s top 20 players, many competitors who were much higher up the world ranking than he was – and younger. “When you’ve been playing golf for 33 years nothing much changes,” Westwood said. “You’ve got to work hard. There’s no shortcuts. At an event a few years back there was Tiger (Woods), Vijay (Singh) and myself. We were the last three to leave the range and it wasn’t a coincidence that the best players are the hardest workers.”
Age has its advantages. You worry less about certain things. Westwood has always been good at keeping his temper under control. “I’ve never been a club breaker,” he said. “I don’t really get too wound up. I have become more analytical and less emotional on the golf course. I’m on an even keel. If the ball doesn’t go in, the ball doesn’t go in. The only thing I can control are the movement and the actions I’m doing to roll it on line to the hole. It might hit something or I might misread it but I brush it off and move on to the next hole. That has served me well.” There, right in the heart of those remarks, are more secrets of his success.
Others are that he has always been a good driver of the ball and a good iron player. When his putting chimes with his skills from tee to green then he becomes a contender. Last week it did. After the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last year he sought out Phil Kenyon, the putting guru. They did tests for every type of putting stroke and the results showed that Westwood was most successful when using the claw grip. So he adopted it and last week it worked like a dream. “If anything, I’ve tried to keep a lid on thinking about how good I’ve been putting this week,” Westwood said. On Sunday he couldn’t keep the lid on this fact any longer. The truth had to come out.
As Westwood left the 18th green, tears poured down his cheeks. He made his way to the clubhouse and there, waiting to embrace him, was Tommy Fleetwood, who had made a terrific last-round charge in an attempt to win this championship for the third time in four years – on the day of his 29th birthday. Will Fleetwood be as good in 17 years as Westwood is now? Also waiting to congratulate Westwood were Sergio García and his wife, Angela. Age has not affected García either though it was a surprise that after his 40th birthday on January 9 he was, by his own admission “nearer 60 than 20.” Ranked 41st in the world last week, will he be higher or lower when he is Westwood’s age?
The most glaring omission from Westwood’s career has been that he has not won a major championship. He has been close many times, finishing in the top 10 on 19 occasions in his career. Twice he has been runner-up at the Masters, and second once and third twice in the Open. That dreaded phrase, the best player never to win a major, hangs around his neck. But it’s a stretch to see him winning one now, at this age, and with the depth of field in the game’s greatest prizes.
But then: “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale her infinite variety” – words from Antony and Cleopatra written by William Shakespeare.
Last week Lee Westwood showed vividly that age had not withered him. It was a lesson no one should ignore.