Lee Westwood is adamant he still has the game and the ambition to win a major title, but admits a certain fellow forty-something will be the man to beat at Bethpage.
This week’s British Masters is only Westwood’s sixth tournament of the season, a combination of choosing to play less and narrowly failing to qualify for the “other” Masters for the second year in succession.
But even before he started his opening round at Hillside with six birdies in the first seven holes, the 46-year-old was talking confidently of his chances of a long-overdue first major title in next week’s US PGA Championship.
“I’m not the person that I was 20 years ago physically and mentally, I have to set new goals and have new ambitions and things like that,” said Westwood, who holds the unwanted record of most top-three finishes in a major (nine) without winning one.
“But I know when I have a week on and I’m playing well and my game is in good shape I can still contend at any level, so I’ve still got ambitions in the game.”
Those ambitions were fuelled by an impressive victory in the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City in November, as well as earlier good results in Spain, Italy and Denmark, where he lost out in a play-off.
And as one of the most experienced players in the game, the famed Black Course at Bethpage State Park holds few fears for the former world number one.
“Bethpage probably plays easier when it’s softer, but obviously we’ll never have played it in May when New York can be a bit chilly, a bit damp. The ball won’t be going very far, so it’ll play into the longer hitters’ hands.
“But I’m still long enough to get around most places. And the last time I played there I finished fifth (in The Barclays in 2012).”
As well as hosting The Barclays in 2012 and 2016, Bethpage staged the US Open in 2002 and 2009, events won by Tiger Woods and Lucas Glover respectively.
Woods was also sixth in 2009 and returns to Long Island as the tournament favourite following his emotional victory in the Masters, his 15th major title and a first since the 2008 US Open – where Westwood missed out on the play-off between Woods and Rocco Mediate by a single shot.
“Well class is permanent, that’s what they always say, and he proved it (at Augusta),” Westwood said of Woods. “He proved that once you’re a winner and you know how to win a golf tournament, regardless of whether you’ve not won one for a while or been in contention, you can switch back into it.
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“He played well. He wasn’t spectacular. I think that’s the preconception that people got when he was in his prime, he was knocking out all the flags, holing all the putts, hitting all the fairways. He wasn’t.
“A lot of tournaments he kind of just did enough to win the tournament and that’s what I got a feel for the Sunday of the Masters. I just thought it was a typical professional Tiger Woods performance really.”
The same of course could not be said of Woods’s 15-shot victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, where the tournament will return in June.
“He’s got a terrible record around Bethpage and Pebble Beach, hasn’t he?” Westwood joked. “No, I envisage him to be in contention at those two. Who knows with Portrush.
“But he is probably at the stage of his career where he’s just trying to peak for the major championships, because if he wins major championships that’s kind of where he’s moved up another level.”
Woods famously feared his career was over due to a debilitating back injury and although Westwood’s own problems were nothing like as severe, he did drop out of the world’s top 250 in 2003 after a major slump in form.
“Everybody loves a comeback, don’t they, especially when it’s somebody that’s a little older in years, because the advantage we have of being old is people have been watching us for a long time,” he added.
“They’ve watched us as kids and growing up through the years and they’ve had a long time to sort of bond with us and get to know us. When you do get to our age, early to mid-40s, it seems more special. It seems like you can share it (success) with more people and more people can relate to it.”