Lee Westwood wins in South Africa
If you follow any official golf accounts on social media, you’ve definitely become familiar with the phrase “Golf is hard”. Usually, the #content creators in charge will tag an embarrassing moment, or a hard lip out with that as a way to post a clip, and remind everyone that all of the stuff that happens to you on the golf course can also happen to those playing for millions of dollars every week. It’s an easy way to post something that should lead to some cheap engagement.
That “golf is hard” tagline was what I thought about on Sunday morning as I woke up and saw that a final round 64 gave Lee Westwood a three shot win over Sergio Garcia at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. Everyone knows that golf is hard, even for the professionals, but it has been an especially rough ride for Westwood over the last few years. It was pretty easy to tell that this win meant a lot to him when watching the post-round interview clip.
Westwood has always been easy to root for. He’s fun, he’s honest, and given his lack of a major championship title on his sizeable resume, he’s been a tragic figure from a golf standpoint for years. Prior to Sunday, Westwood’s last win on any tour came in April of 2015 at the Indonesian Masters, and he’s been ranked outside of the top-50 in the world since March of last year. Westwood only played in one major championship in 2018, joining the field at the Open at Carnoustie on the basis of finishing in the top 30 in the 2017 Race to Dubai. It was the first year since 2006 that he wasn’t qualified for all four majors, and you have to go back to 1996 to find the last time that he only teed it up in one of the four biggest tournaments of the year.
For a guy who was the number one ranked player in the world for 22 weeks, and a consistent force in the game for significantly longer than that, it’s very easy to see why this win matters so much to him. You have to remember, too, that Westwood has gone through hell before on the golf course. After being ranked no worse than 11th in the world from June of 1998 to August of 2001, Westwood plummeted to 266th by May of 2003. He knows what it feels like to be at the highest level, but not play at the highest level. In his own words to David Feherty back in 2013, he “couldn’t hit a cow’s ass with a banjo.”
As Westwood gets set to turn 46 in April of next year, it was more than reasonable to start thinking about whether or not we’d see him in the winner’s circle again. Given his track record, and reputation as a supreme ball striker, three plus years without a win is a significant chunk of time. Throw in the fact that his run of ten consecutive Ryder Cup appearances came to an end in 2018, and that most people still don’t trust him on the greens, and you would have a pretty decent argument against Westwood making a run again.
It’s funny how we speak about golf, and golfers. One of the great appeals of the game is that it really is something that people of all ages can play. My uncle is over 70, and still loves to get out and play, even if he has to take a cart at this stage to get around the course. For the pros, we always talk about how really high quality golf at the professional level can still be played by players in their 50s, and even into their 60s. Davis Love III is still really good, Tom Watson nearly won the Open at 59, and I’m convinced that if he played a full season on the PGA Tour, that Bernhard Langer would probably end up retaining his card for the following year. That feeling that you can have a lengthy career, and that we as fans get to be along for the entire ride is really cool, and it’s pretty much something that is exclusive to golf.
The flip side to this is that even though we talk about how players can play golf at the elite level for a really long time, we don’t often talk about how once it’s gone, usually as a result of aging, that it doesn’t usually come back. Westwood came back from the wilderness at the age of 30. Henrik Stenson returned from trouble at 27, and again at 36. The return to the top of the mountain, after turning 40, is just not something that you see all that often. It’s also going to be especially difficult in the coming years, as this new crop of young bombers start joining the professional ranks at an alarming pace. Guys like Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, and Luke Donald, who were already on the decline, are not going to be able to keep up with Cameron Champ unless they are, essentially, flawless over a four day stretch.
Going forward, I’m not sure what this win means for Westwood. It’s possible that it doesn’t end up meaning much of anything in terms of how well he plays, and that he’ll end up fading as the calendar turns toward 2019, but it does mean that there might be a little gas left in the tank. It’d be nice to see him at the major championships again, hoping that he can have one magical four day stretch, allowing him to capture the one thing that has always eluded him, but with his reaction, this might be almost as good. Getting back to the top, even if it is for just one week, is pretty cool to see, especially for someone who probably knows that his time left at the very top of the game is nearing its end.
Golf, is indeed, hard. I’m happy though that for one November week in South Africa, it looked a little easier for Lee Westwood.