THE world Nos 1 and 2 have come armed here to this USPGA Championship with their meticulously devised battle plans to win their first major. Luke Donald is going to whistle. And Lee Westwood is going to impersonate his 10-year-old son.
It’s all about not caring, was the Englishmen’s message, and as the humidity levels threatened the 100 degree mark, it was easy to lie back and be as soporific as a rabbit. Yet this was the mere heat of a Tuesday. On Thursday at a major, the competitive dial starts to wind its way ever higher and then, as Westwood said, “Trying not to care is like trying not to breathe”.
>> Luke Donald talks about the pressure of playing in a Major
Westwood is determined to give it a whirl, however. As is Donald. “I’ll keep trying all the ways until I pick up one of these trophies,” he said. Not caring must be the final solution.
Certainly it seems that way for Westwood, who has come so close on so many occasions that he is the undisputed world champion of the “best never to win...” division. “I suppose that’s a compliment,” he said. But it isn’t one he’s particularly proud about. Westwood has watched four fellow members of International Sports Management win majors in the last 13 months and has inevitably wondered where he is going wrong. The answer? Stop the wondering.
Dr Bob Rotella, the celebrated mind guru who inspired Darren Clarke to Open glory last month, told him as much when Westwood finally ended his long boycott of shrinks a week last Sunday. Westwood had just suffered a putting-inspired missed cut at the Open after notching up a staggering five top-threes from his last seven majors and his patience had snapped. Lie down on the couch, Mr Westwood. The effect has been as instant as it will be noticeable.
“How will my approach be different to what it was in other majors,” said Westwood who took just 27 putts in Sunday’s 65 to finish tied for ninth at Firestone. “Try to play this tournament like I don’t really care... have a free and clear mind and play like it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s four rounds, just like the Indonesian Masters. I’m just going to play like my son, Sam, who stood over a 10-foot putt on the last green of the par-three event at the Masters this year and rolled it in. Sam wasn’t thinking about whether the putter face was square or he was taking it back far enough. That’s just how kids do it and that’s the mentality I’m trying to get back to in my golf.”
In practice straightforward, in competition damn difficult, particularly when you not only have the results sheet and ranking to demand you contend, but also the age to suggest time may be running out. While Clarke’s breakthrough as a 42-year-old showed what is possible after the “life begins at...” stage, the stats highlight the scale of the age barrier. Westwood’s time is now and the problem is, the headlines never let him forget it. England haven’t won a major in 15 years and, whether Westwood likes it or not, England expects.
“This is a very media-driven world, not just with TV and newspapers, but Facebook, Twitter and stuff like that,” he said. “There’s so many people talking your chance up it can really get too much and you can start to believe it.”
It’s confusing as Westwood claims that “self-belief is everything”, but is also stating “expectation is destructive”. “The trick is what Greg Norman once said - ’You’ve got to be trying 110 per cent, but feeling like you don’t have a care in the world’,” explained Westwood. “When you watch me putt this week, you’ll see me in a routine that I’m comfortable with, but you’ll see no trying.” “Erm, can you articulate that any better, Lee?” “No,” he replied. “I’ve tried to think about it but I’ve come to the decision there are no words in the English language to articulate ’not trying’ which are any better than ’not trying’.”
Westwood will never lose his sarcasm, but is confident his temperament between the ropes will change. In truth, the viewer will spot the alteration to his putting routine, (if not to the rest of his routine, as tee-to-green he has become quite easily the best in the world). Dave Stockton, the putting guru he sought the day after Rotella in Akron last week, saw his flaw immediately. “When he putted he clenched his teeth and hardly breathed,” he said. So as well as a tweak on how the putter rests in his left hand, Westwood was instructed to loosen up and not to grip the club as tight.
So there we have it. A lighter grip and a lighter attitude to go with a lighter frame he has worked on ferociously to lose nine pounds in the last month. “Coming to this heat I just felt I needed to lose some weight and have been training pretty hard,” he said. “Last week, I had a personal best in the gym when I deadlifted 354lb.” Westwood then looked up at his manager, Chubby Chandler, and said: “For anyone who doesn’t know how heavy that is, it’s a Chubby and a quarter.”
Donald could never compete with Westwood with the dumb-bells, or indeed, with the quips, but he does happen to be the world No 1 and has plenty of expectation of his own to shoulder. Like Westwood he has struggled to cope with the burden. At the Open, Donald went in on the back of yet another inspired performance at the Scottish Open. Like Westwood he missed the cut. “I did probably try too hard,” he said. “You know, majors are made out to be the biggest deal and a lot of pressure is put on guys who haven’t won, like myself, Lee, Adam [Scott]. Sometime you can get caught up in it and go to these events and try too hard. You get uptight and it’s hard to let it go and play the way you can play.”
Donald understands the Westwood philosophy this week, although he seemed sceptical of whether it could be as straightforward as perfecting a Clark “I don’t give a damn” Gable. “It’s a fine line,” he maintained. “I believe there must be a balance between not trying and putting in enough effort to give it your very best. But with putting especially there is something in not concentrating too much. Take me last week in Akron.”
At the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, Donald insisted he was just as adept tee-to-green on the Thursday and Friday, when he fired a 68 and 69 as he was on Saturday and Sunday, when he fired a 64 and 66.
“The only difference was my putting,” said Donald, who effectively uses Dave Alred, the performance coach, as his sports psychologist. “The first two days I was working on something with my putter and just kept grinding on it. Too much concentration on technique when I was over the ball and less focus on holing it. On Saturday and Sunday, I just decided to freewheel - less thoughts and less trying. How did I go about doing that? Actually I just whistled to myself when I putted. It was just some nursery rhymes I sing to my daughter. I might do it again this week.”
Indeed, if one of Westwood or Donald wins England their first USPGA since Jim Barnes won the first two stagings almost a century ago, then it is obvious who should step forward and accept the applause. Rotella or Alred? Not even close. Take a bow Sam Westwood or Elle Donald. This majors lark is kids’ stuff.
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