Serene Westwood sets course for Masters cruise
Lee Westwood bridled earlier this week when asked about the impending Tiger v Rory show at the Masters.
But after hitting a serene 67 to lead the Masters by one after the first round, the laconic Englishman appeared vindicated.
Westwood's response to questions about a "two-horse race" was to pointedly remind the press there were other players in the field.
"I didn't really try and remind everybody," he grinned on Thursday. "I was just trying to be a voice of common sense."
Westwood's imperious round, set against a context of muddy balls and tough pin positions designed to counter the soft, and theoretically easier conditions, tied his lowest score at the Masters.
And it emulated his opening round from two years ago when he led after three days and finished second to Phil Mickelson.
The Englishman has now shot par or better in 11 of his last 12 rounds at Augusta.
"This is a golf course that I love playing. It seems to suit my game," he said. "It was originally designed as a second-shot golf course. And my iron shots are one of the strengths of my game.
"I hit pretty much every fairway and 16 greens in regulation and rolled a few nice putts in from sort of five to 10ft, which, when you're hitting it close a lot, is productive."
Westwood, who has worked hard to improve a weakness in his putting, insists he wasn't particularly motivated to prove a point or to show he was a worthy favourite alongside Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson.
"No more than normal. Just trying to cruise my way into the tournament and get in a good position and then hopefully stay there," he said.
As Westwood well knows, a first-round lead is just that, nothing more. Everyone will have their own route from A to D, in this case Sunday afternoon.
World number one Donald, who is eight shots adrift, might do well to get there. He nearly didn't make Friday's second round. Disqualification loomed before an administrative error was blamed for an apparent wrong score with his signature on it.
Before the controversy was brought to light, and despite obvious disappointment as one of the top tips, he said all the right things about Friday being a new day, no doubt inspired by his guru Dave Alred.
Donald has realised of late, with five wins in 14 months, that he can close out a tournament even when is not at his best. But with the cut set to trim anyone more than 10 shots off the lead, his belief in that had better be strong.
Woods's fighting qualities have never been in doubt – winning 14 majors and managing two fourths here despite difficult personal circumstances in the last two years are testament to that.
And he praised his patience after a round in which his supposedly firing new swing let him down. Twice the world number seven needed drops from unplayable lies, from a hazard on the second and from behind a tree on 18.
"Same old motor patterns," said Woods, alluding to the swing of former coach Hank Haney, whose controversial book "The Big Miss" about their six years together was published just before the tournament.
"I made some bad swings. That's fine. I said just, 'stay committed'. I really grinded and stayed very patient. At least I have something to build on."
McIlroy, too, struggled to find the fluency that saw him hold at least a share of the lead in the first three rounds last year.
But a two-birdie finish for a one-under 71 gave him plenty to be positive about. In many ways it might be better than leading again and attracting all the attention and memories of 12 months ago.
"It only leaves me four off the lead, and with 54 holes still to play, that's nothing," he said. He, of course, should know.
And what of Mickelson? An adventurous triple-bogey seven he termed "Tarzaneous" - courtesy of a lost ball in the trees to the left of the 10th - could have prompted his own McIlroy-esque meltdown, but he, too, dug deep to limit the damage. With his short-game magic and gamblers' instinct, seven shots may not be too far back either. Nick Faldo (1995) and Woods (2005) have done it from there after 18 holes.
Back at the front, Westwood is well aware of the chatter that accompanies each failure to win a first major as he nears 40 - he will be 39 later this month - but insists his life should not be defined by it.
Obviously if I sit down at the end of my career and there's no major championship wins, I'll be disappointed. If there's five or six, I'll be delighted."
One player who proved he is a class act, even before he teed off, was Mickelson. The three-time champion rose early and donned his Green Jacket to stand behind the first tee at 0740 to watch golf's "big three" from yesteryear - Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player - hit the ceremonial drives, even though his own tee time was six hours later.
"It's an experience that I really enjoyed," he said. "They have brought the game to where it is."
And the likes of Louis Oosthuizen, Peter Hanson, Paul Lawrie, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Francesco Molinari, to name just the next five on the leaderboard, have just as much right as the superstars.