The last time Lee Westwood saw a putt drop for a victory on the European Tour was in Malaysia in April 2014. In the 4½ years since then, the Englishman has been close, yet unable to win again.
That all changed Sunday. Westwood holed out for par on the 18th hole at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, completing an 8-under 64 (scores), and caddie/girlfriend Helen Storey leaped into his arms. Victory was not yet assured – third-round leader Sergio Garcia, the eventual runner-up, and Louis Oosthuizen, who stumbled to a closing double bogey and third place – still were on the course.
© GOLFFILE/TYRONE WINFIELD
Lee Westwood and caddie/girlfriend Helen Storey embrace victory at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
For the 45-year-old Westwood, the three-shot victory for his 24th title on the European Tour was not a full-circle accomplishment similar to what Tiger Woods experienced at the Tour Championship in September, but the feeling had to be similar.
“I'm a bit emotional, to be honest,” Westwood said from Gary Player Country Club in Sun City, South Africa, as tears welled in his eyes. “You're never sure whether you're going to be able to do it again.”
If you had seen Westwood at the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in 2016, he seemed unlikely to win again. At his 10th Ryder Cup, Westwood went 0-3-0 and appeared to be a tired, aging player. That perception clearly was wrong. Westwood closed with a bogey-free round Sunday as he pulled away in the penultimate event on the tour’s Race to Dubai.
“Until now, my emotions have felt really under control all day, which is what I've been working on,” Westwood said. “I was just trying to hit fairways and stick to my game plan and hit it in the right places. I've got a bit of a process I'm going through with the golf swing. I'm starting to see better shots.”
Westwood first won the Nedbank in 2010 (he would repeat a year later, before the tournament was co-sanctioned by the Sunshine and European tours), when he was one of the hottest players in the world. Just weeks earlier, he finished second at the WGC HSBC Champions to move to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. At 37, Westwood won for the first time as the top player in the world.
His reign ended after 17 weeks, in early 2011, but he regained the top spot in the spring, only to lose it after five weeks.
After 2011, Westwood would win only five times worldwide – the most recent in April 2015, in the Asian Tour’s CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters – before his victory Sunday.
He experienced a steady slide as his game deteriorated with age. In the past 11 months, Westwood had plummeted in the world ranking, from 64th at the end of 2017 to 119th last week.
“Hit the ball good,” Westwood said a week earlier after a first-round 66 in the Turkish Airlines Open, in which he eventually tied for 35th. “Hit a lot of fairways. Hit it close. Made a few putts. Short game was sharp, which, surprising, I didn't do any practice last week. I hit balls for about an hour and spent most of that hour giving my son a lesson.”
But as Westwood has done so often during the past three years, he struggled to put together 72 holes, sandwiching a 72-74 between opening and closing 66s in Turkey.
After he shot 3-under 69 in the third round in South Africa, Westwood found himself in an unusual position: three shots behind Garcia and close enough to sense a potential victory.
“I always look forward to being in contention playing in the last few groups, but even more so when it's a golf course like this where I've done well in the past,” Westwood said. “It's a tournament I love playing in, and I love coming back to Sun City. Yeah, it's a good spot to be in.”
He eagled the par-5 second hole and made the turn in 3-under 33 before racking up five birdies in a back-nine 31. Ultimately, with some assistance from Storey, Westwood earned his 24th victory on the European Tour, 43rd title worldwide and renewed hope as he faces a new season.
“It's been brilliant,” Westwood said of his newfound caddie. “She's caddied twice for me this year, and we lost in a playoff in Denmark and we've won here. Have to have a bit of a rethink, not least about who caddies for me, but our percentages.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli