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 JOHN HOPKINS
 Last Shot

That's what they call 'experience'
In only his second year as a tournament pro, Ireland's Rory McIlroy had the impertinence to challenge Europe's established superstars for supremacy - and was promptly swatted by a resurgent Lee Westwood

We have all seen the wildlife programmes in which a lioness is curled up under a tree with her cubs around her. They are noisy, arguing with one another, annoying her until suddenly she reaches out a paw and clips the smallest and noisiest cub around the head. It gives a yelp and then it quietens down.

That is what Lee Westwood, 36, did to Rory McIlroy, 20, in the Dubai World Championship that decided the Race to Dubai. He cuffed McIlroy around the ear, gave him a good kicking.

At the start of the week Westwood was second, £114,000 behind McIlroy, the Race to Dubai leader, yet the Englishman taught his young stablemate a lesson in all aspects of the game – the playing of it, the mental approach to it, what to say and what not to say, what to do and what not to do, when to talk and when to keep quiet. In short, Westwood beat him all ends up.

Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood
Reality check: Westwood produced a masterclass in Dubai, elevating himself to
No. 4 in the world rankings with class and consistency no one - McIlroy included - could hope to match

It helped that Westwood’s golf was exceptional. He hardly made a mistake in 72 holes. One can sense that when it was all over and McIlroy had gone away to think about it he must have felt quite bruised at what had been done to him. One hopes that he learned from it. He will win plenty in his time and when he does he might regard the third week in November 2009 as having been hard but beneficial.

Westwood and McIlroy had begun sparring on a BBC online forum. “They [Westwood and Darren Clarke] think the nickname they have given me [‘Titch’] is hilarious so I guess I’m stuck with it until they get too old and fat to play on tour any more” McIlroy said.

This was McIlroy’s first mistake. Confidence is one thing; irreverence is another. When McIlroy is older and heavier, he will be more mindful of jibes made about age and weight.

“We’re just having a laugh,” Westwood said “and I’m a little better at it than he is because I’ve got 16 years more experience. I can normally wind him up.” This is exactly what Westwood did. In the opening exchanges, Westwood landed more blows than McIlroy.

When the two of them were paired together for the first round, Westwood’s psychological dominance was soon to surface again. He loved the confrontational nature of it. He was confident and he dictated the terms, how much they talked, what they talked about and so on. Having gone round in 66, two strokes fewer than McIlroy, he was in his element, the more so because he realised McIlroy was not.

“I didn’t think I would find it as difficult as I did,” McIlroy said later before making another error. He owned up to the world that he did not want to play with Westwood again. What was the message here? That Westwood was proving too much for him?

Westwood later said that had the roles been reversed he would not have said such a thing, even if he had thought it. “But then I’ve been on tour 16 years and he has been on tour three years and it’s something he’ll learn over time.” Round two to Westwood as well.

After 27 holes McIlroy had overtaken Westwood and led by two strokes. Westwood said he was not aware of this. “I have no interest in anybody else’s game this week” Westwood explained. Take this with a pinch of salt. It is hard to imagine that Westwood had not caught a glimpse of a scoreboard that showed how well McIlroy was doing but the last thing he was going to do was to acknowledge a rival's success publicly. Round three to Westwood.

By Sunday Westwood was two strokes ahead of Ross McGowan and five of McIlroy. He continued to demonstrate the rare calm and unusual degree of confidence that he had all week. Did this get through to his challengers, particularly McIlroy? If it did, it was meant to. “I think the way you are, the way you portray yourself can be intimidating to other people,” Westwood admitted on Sunday. “I am not saying it was but it certainly helped.” Round four to Westwood.

One further factor might have influenced Westwood. It was that McIlroy had disregarded Westwood’s, Darren Clarke’s and Ernie Els’s advice, as well as that of Chubby Chandler, his manager, to remain mainly in Europe. On the eve of the tournament McIlroy publicly admitted he was going to join the PGA Tour in the US. I dare say this gave Westwood more motivation to teach his young rival a lesson.

One last thing. What colour shirt did Westwood wear on Sunday? Red, the same as Tiger Woods. Westwood was doing what Woods demonstrates so often, namely that the hitting of a shot is only part of golf. Having a strong mind and dominating rivals is the other half.

All in all, Westwood out-played and out-thought McIlroy quite strikingly. “Sometimes what you say off the course and the mind games you play are as important as the pressure you can put on people on the golf course,” Westwood said.

He certainly demonstrated this to be true down in Dubai.

January 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 

 





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