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Major success final hurdle for Westwood

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Ladies and gentlemen, it's "Jeopardy" time.

Give me golf for ten, Alex.

Answer: Second, tied sixteenth, second, tied third and tied third.

Question: What are the finishing positions filled by Lee John Westwood in his last five major championship appearances?

Lee Westwood played well enough to win last year's Masters. Can he take the next step this time? (Getty Images)  
Lee Westwood played well enough to win last year's Masters. Can he take the next step this time? (Getty Images)  
Correct. So it is that no one -- not Tiger Woods, not Phil Mickelson and not world No. 1 Martin Kaymer -- arrived at Augusta National for this week's 75th playing of the Masters 'Toonamint' more deserving of a maiden Grand Slam victory than the 37-year old Westwood, currently ranked the second-best golfer on the planet.

Of course, golf being the constant lesson in complete and utter unfairness that it has forever been, meriting success is no guarantee of the same -- far from it. But still, if anyone has paid the dues required of any elite sportsman, it is the boy from Worksop in the English Midlands.

Which is not to say that Westwood is unaware of the irrelevance of past performance. All that matters is the now, not what has already been and gone. But at least in Westwood's case, that seemingly stark fact works both ways. Over the course of his 16-year professional life he has experienced just about the best and just about the worst that a career in competitive sport can offer. The label 'yo-yo man' barely does him justice.

"When Lee first came to see me as a 22-year old, he had played 11 events during 1995 and won only £7,000 ($9,968)," recalls swing coach Pete Cowen, who also works with current US Open champion Graeme McDowell and Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. "He was short and wild, but had huge promise. I told Chubby (Westwood's agent) that he could win an event that year. He thought I was having a laugh. But I knew Lee could do it. And he did. In the next 22 events, he won twice and picked up £700,000 ($99,000)."

And so it continued. At the end of 2000, Westwood was ranked the No. 1 player in Europe and fourth in the world before it all went famously and horribly wrong. In not much more than two years, he lost his game to the extent that, by May 25, 2003, he was the 266th best player on the planet and but a shell of his former self.

Lees than a decade later, those dark days are but a rapidly fading nightmare, one that has been banished to the dustbin of history by hard work, a persistence known only to few and, on occasion, sheer bloody-mindedness. Not currently a member of the PGA Tour and controversially scheduled to miss the Players Championship next month, Westwood does things his own way, to hell with what anyone else thinks.

"He's one tough bugger," says Westwood's agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler. "Don't think I've ever seen him give up on the golf course," chips in caddie Billy Foster.

"Just a brilliant player," is the verdict of close friend Darren Clarke.

The Masters

"Definitely his own man," comments coach Cowen. All of which is accurate and reflective of a stubbornly determined character that remains predictably undaunted by the run of near-misses he has suffered in major championship play over the last three years or so.

With his struggles came perspective, so a few well-compensated disappointments are nothing to a man who has visited both ends of the world rankings. He may be one of the game's premier ball strikers, but it is the clarity of his golfing mind that is perhaps the most effective club in his bag. Certainly, he has never felt the need to delve into the mystical world of sports psychology.

"You've got to believe in what psychologists have to say, but I never really have," he shrugs. "I didn't have any trouble winning when I got to No. 1 in Europe back in 2000, so why bother with it now? Besides, those guys all seem to point out the obvious: 'you're good, you're good, you're good'."

"During my bad patch it didn't matter how often I told myself how good I was; I was still pulling and carving shots miles left and right. So I could have told myself I was good until my head fell off, but the ball would still have gone the wrong way."

That hasn't been happening much recently. Westwood's rise to the world No.1 one spot he recently held for 17 weeks was the result of a rarely-before seen level of consistency that lacked only a commensurate number of victories. Last year's "loss" to Phil Mickelson at Augusta National was typical of his lack of luck. Despite shooting a 13-under par 275 -- a score good enough to win 25 of the previous 30 Masters and a playoff for two more -- Westwood ultimately left the premises disappointed. But, crucially, not disheartened.

"I think I've shown I'm good enough and that I can contend in any major I play," he says with some justification. "Now I'm learning to peak at the right times. I'm giving up a little in week-to-week tournaments but reaping the benefits in the majors. I think we can all see looking at my career that winning at least one is all that is left for me to achieve."

And with that, it is back to Mr. Trebek.

Answer: Lee Westwood.

Question: Which golfer in the Masters field this week has already done most to earn victory?

Correct.

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