Golf: Westwood creeps closer to Major dream

England's Lee Westwood tees off on the 10th during the third round of the 2013 British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield golf course at Gullane in Scotland on July 20, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
England's Lee Westwood tees off on the 10th during the third round of the 2013 British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield golf course at Gullane in Scotland on July 20, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP

Some stood at the 18th hole, some cheered, some whistled, all hailed their orange-shirted hero in the dark glasses. No one has played this Open better than Lee Westwood. But Lee Westwood knows there are no prizes for leading on the third day of a Major.

The Englishman has played the Majors since 1995; he has had four chances, by his own estimation, to win a Major; he has altered his waistline, his coaches and his country of residence in a bid to earn a Major. He has still never won one.

He has been seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth, third, second at a Major but never first. He casually says it's "not the end of the world" if he never wins one, but at 40 it would be out of this world if he did.

His round done on Saturday, Westwood was confident, composed and even took over comic duties from Miguel Angel Jimenez. Asked how he might relax after a high-pressure day, he produced a rather useful answer:

"Well, actually I'm not in a high-pressure situation, because I'm going to go have dinner, and I'm so good with a knife and fork now that I don't feel any pressure at all.

"I'll think about winning The Open Championship tonight at some stage, I'm sure. I don't see anything wrong with that, picture yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard. When it comes to tee off around three-ish, I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today."

Westwood walked with a light step on Saturday but on Sunday he'll carry the cruel weight of history. His reassurance is that he won't be alone. There are 10 players within five shots of him and none of them are without an equivalent burden. Henrik Stenson wants to be first Swedish man to win a Major; Woods wants to win a Major for the first time when not leading on Sunday.

Everyone's drought is relative here: Woods hasn't won a Major in five years, Mahan never has, and Adam Scott hasn't won one in three months. The Australian has played without fanfare and said "I was just kind of plodding along at even par for most of the week". This dangerous Scott is evidently a very gifted plodder.

Westwood and Woods were separated by nothing in the end but nerve and judgement. On the par-three 16th, Woods missed a birdie and Westwood missed the entire green. He got a poor lie in the rough, barely chipped out, but made a dramatic long putt to keep the damage to a bogey.

On the par-five 17th, Westwood found a birdie and Woods found a fairway bunker and a bogey. In two holes, a day was turned.

Westwood, who had a one-under 70, is at three-under, which translates to a two-shot lead over Woods (72) and Mahan (68). It is an impressive lead. It is also nothing. Jimenez dropped six shots in a single day and probably disappeared in a cloud of cigar smoke.

All day the leaderboard operators were overworked as players lurched between triumph and disaster. Mostly, to Rudyard Kipling's approval, they treated both those imposters just the same.

Mahan soared from one-over for the tournament to one-under; Stenson dropped from one-under to one-over; Ryan Moore journeyed from even par to three-over to even to one-over. To take a break for a sandwich was to miss either magic or mayhem.

Who will win this Open is beyond prediction? Tea laves can be examined and palms read and little will be revealed. Nothing has gone to plan, not even the weather which must feel like Florida to Westwood, who recently shifted to those shores.

Of course, asked about it, he dryly noted: "Little did I know when I moved to Florida that I was acclimatising for The Open in Scotland."

This year Scott won his first Major, and so did Justin Rose, and every athlete believes their perfect time will come. They need to believe it. They need to know hard work will pay off. They need to know dreams count for something.

It doesn't happen for everyone, of course, but this is precisely the allure of sport. You never know and you never know when. Westwood has been close, and very often, and he will believe fervently that his time must come. One day. Maybe Sunday.

rohitb@sph.com.sg