x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Will Westwood be Europe's nearly man?

The irritating monkey on the back of Montgomerie will before much longer be climbing on to Westwood's shoulders if the Englishman continues to squander away opportunities.

Lee Westwood has the talent to climb higher than third in the world rankings.
Lee Westwood has the talent to climb higher than third in the world rankings.

Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain and a hero of numerous duels with the Americans, has complained about many things during a lengthy and productive golfing career in which he has made himself an easy target for mischief makers. There has been no more guaranteed way to wind up the prickly Scotsman, however, than to quiz him over his failure to add the crowning glory to an outstanding personal resume by putting his name on one of the honours boards of his sport's four major championships.

Officially Europe's top player in eight of his 23 years as a professional, Monty has so often fallen agonisingly short of landing a big one. He has been the runner-up five times, most embarrassingly when he led approaching the final hole of the 2006 US Open, and will now surely go into retirement with the unwanted label of being renowned as the best European player never to have won a major. Unless Lee Westwood takes that stigma away from him. The irritating monkey on the back of Montgomerie will before much longer be climbing on to Westwood's broad shoulders if the Englishman continues to squander glittering opportunities to join his sport's exclusive club.

At 37, Westwood still has plenty of time on his side in his quest to fill his frustrating career void. Indeed, Jack Nicklaus was 46 - the same age as Montgomerie is now - when he captured the last of his record haul of 18 majors in 1986. But Westwood cannot go on wasting chances as he did in last month's Masters. That disappointing second place, which followed his third-placed finishes in the US and British Opens and the US PGA Championship, came after he had led going into the final round - a scenario which was unfortunately repeated in the recent Players Championship in Florida, widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major.

Westwood's late collapse in the US PGA Tour's flagship event, won by a fast-finishing South African Tim Clark, was as hard to bear as any of the other near misses and may still be hurting as the European Tour's flagship equivalent, the BMW PGA Championship, moves into the spotlight at Wentworth today. To his great credit, Westwood has already proved that he can cope with adversity. An alarming decline from fourth in the world in 2001 to outside the top 250 on the rankings ladder would have finished off lesser men, but he refused to accept then that his best days were behind him.

A splendid 2009 campaign which ended with him celebrating the magnificent double of the Dubai World Championship and Race to Dubai honours set him up to challenge for a career-high ranking of three which he secured through his fourth place at Sawgrass. Now only Tiger Woods, who has 14 majors under his belt but faces an uncertain future, and a resurgent Phil Mickelson, who has dealt admirably with the problems in his own private life to come back as strong ever in notching his fourth major at Augusta National, are rated above him.

That is a double-edged sword for Westwood as it has been in tennis for his British compatriot Andy Murray. The higher your ranking the more questions you have to answer about your lack of a major title. Westwood has demonstrated that he has the talent to go higher than three. He must now prove that he has the character to accompany that talent by securing that elusive maiden major while still at the peak of his powers. Emerging triumphant over the next four days from a high-class Wentworth line-up, just as he did in similar company at the Earth Course in Dubai last November, will send out a message that he will again be among the front runners for the US Open at Pebble Beach next month and the British Open at St Andrews in July. wjohnson@thenational.ae