x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Another major eludes Lee Westwood – this time at the British Open

Former world No 1 could not hold his final day lead at Muirfield but past winners have proven that age is just a number, writes John McAuley.

Lee Westwood entered the final day with a lead but could not hold on as his frustration was evident after missing a par putt on 13 at Muirfield. He shot a 4-over on Sunday and finished in a tie for third overall. Russell Cheyne / Reuters
Lee Westwood entered the final day with a lead but could not hold on as his frustration was evident after missing a par putt on 13 at Muirfield. He shot a 4-over on Sunday and finished in a tie for third overall. Russell Cheyne / Reuters

Away from the swashbuckling, championship-clinching 66, the history-making Scottish double, or the securing of a first Claret Jug in 19 attempts, spare a thought for Lee Westwood.

It is difficult to deflect attention from the mastery of winner Phil Mickelson, but in taming the back nine at Muirfield, the American not only landed arguably international golf's most coveted prize, but in the process delivered a crushing blow to an English rose. Those major doubts may have sprouted deeper roots.

No British Open in 19 swipes? When it comes to the game's cold, hard currency, nothing guarantees a wealthy reputation more than its majors.

So forget Mickelson's trifling dry spell – heck, he had four other big ones already – and think about Westwood, whose drought over 62 major-championship appearances has been so substantial, it could be described as positively Saharan.

There have been close-run things before, too many for comfort. Seven top-three finishes, in fact, more than anyone past or present who has yet to reach the pinnacle. Since the 2009 British Open, when he finished tied for third, Westwood has contested 17 majors and on 11 occasions ended the week inside the top 10.

In a sport that breeds more malignant psychological scar tissue than any other, the Englishman has required multiple skin grafts, none more so than at Turnberry four years ago when he three-putted the 72nd hole and watched as Stewart Cink proved the villain to an old Tom Watson folk tale.

This could be equally difficult to accept. Granted, Westwood's task was never straightforward. He spent the best part of the week smiling through any adversity – a ploy that seemed to work – and it was difficult to see any tension as he prepared for what many hoped would be the discarding of a considerable monkey from his back.

His putter may disagree, but those wraparound shades had proved his most reliable piece of equipment. It makes it easy to feign indifference when you have boarded up the windows to the soul.

Even on Saturday night, Westwood, as the 54-hole leader, denied the pressure was pinching. Asked ahead of his post-round meal if he was feeling the strain, Westwood drolly remarked: "No, I'm so good with a knife and fork now, that I don't feel any pressure at all."

It is a pity he could not serve the Sunday banquet the galleries craved. Previously pinpoint with the putter – across three rounds, he led the field in fewest putts with 81 – Westwood's touch deserted him on the back nine after he had earlier surrendered the lead standing on the eighth green.

His frayed approach play had steadied by then, but a series of putts from holes 10 to 14 failed to find the cup. When his tee shot splashed into the sand at the par-3 16th, around the same moment Mickelson was being swamped by family and friends two greens ahead, Westwood's major wait was all but guaranteed to continue.

As tough as it will be to take, there is no shame in defeat. Of the 20 previous majors championships, only five leaders after the close of play on Saturday had stood triumphant 24 hours later, arms wrapped tightly around the title.

The 2013 chasing pack would have trembled the steadiest knees, too. Go as far as six strokes back – the same chasm Ernie Els bridged to emerge victorious last year – and Westwood was attempting to outrun and outgun 16 guys, a considerable posse creaking under a collective 22 majors between them. Need he be reminded, his tally stood at fat zero.

Adam Scott, having painfully capitulated at Royal Lytham 12 months ago, summed up late on Saturday the gravity of the task, describing as "fortunate" that he could "go out there tomorrow not carrying the weight of a lead and not having won a major".

A double whammy for Westy.

Not only has he failed to clinch another major but, since Colin Montgomerie abdicated some years back, Westwood remain seated snugly in the throne reserved for the best player never to have won one.

This season marked a watershed, though, as Westwood, a former world No 1, relocated to America and thus demonstrated his commitment to rectifying the only blot on an otherwise sublime CV. He has not simply switched homes, but there is a new caddy and new coach. This week he even recruited an unlikely putting guru.

At 40, the chances could be perceived to be slipping by, although if anything Darren Clarke, Els and Mickelson have shown this is a boom for the golden oldies. And he can seek solace in that, just like the 2010 US Masters, it took a round summoned from the heavens to derail his perpetual quest for vindication.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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