He’s north of 40 now, with a list of accomplishments that would make most of his peers salivate. Lee Westwood has 39 professional victories, played in eight straight Ryder Cups, been named European Tour player of the year three times, and ended the five-year reign of Tiger Woods as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer.
Something remains missing, though. And Westwood might be running out of time to find it.
For the 62d time, Westwood will be competing in one of golf’s four major championships, when the 142d British Open commences at Muirfield Thursday. His first 61 appearances have resulted in no victories, just a rash of frustrating near misses.
Perhaps this week will be different. Maybe a return to the United Kingdom will finally push the 40-year-old Englishman across the line, as they say, and into golf history. Of the four majors, the British is the one Westwood most wants to win, always has been.
He’s not being picky, just honest.
“Right at the top, No. 1,’’ Westwood said last month, at the Travelers Championship near Hartford, when asked where the Open ranks in his personal pyramid of tournaments. “As a British player, it’s the only major championship held in Britain, we grew up watching it.
“I’ve always played links golf pretty well, so we’ll see. I’ll get my game in shape for that week, hopefully.”
That week is now this week, but Westwood isn’t considered the favorite (that’s Woods, according to the oddsmakers). Nor is Westwood in the top five, despite his recent propensity for contending in majors, including the British. In his last 15 major starts, starting with the 2009 British, Westwood has finished second or third six times, so he’s worn out the path that leads to the door that only major champions can walk through. He simply needs to locate the key that unlocks it.
“His short game seems to be sabotaging him year in and year out in these things, and just when you think he’s going to do it, something happens either on the green or around the green,” said Paul Azinger, winner of the 1993 PGA Championship who finished second in the 1987 British Open, also at Muirfield. “That’s just his Achilles’ heel. He still has plenty of time, in my opinion.”
Maybe, maybe not. In the last 15 years, only one player has become a first-time major champion after turning 40. That was Darren Clarke, two years ago at the British. It’s not impossible, but Westwood, despite promise and potential and what seems to be a date with eventual major destiny, has reached the age where history isn’t on his side anymore.
He likes Muirfield, though, despite the fact that he missed the cut in 2002, the last time the British was played there. Along with Royal Birkdale and Carnoustie, Westwood said the East Lothian links are among his three favorite courses in the British Open rota.
“If you’re looking at a golf course that you would think would be very good for him, it’s Muirfield,” said Andy North, a two-time US Open winner who, like Azinger, will be serving as an announcer on this week’s ESPN broadcasts. “You have to flight tee shots. You have to be able to really hit solid shots when the wind gets blowing.
“So many of the holes it blows across the fairways there, that you think he’s a player that’s going to be in your group of players that has a chance to win there.”
Westwood is hoping for a little patriotic boost from Justin Rose. Last month at Merion, Rose won the US Open, becoming the first British champion of that tournament since Tony Jacklin in 1970. And while an Englishman has won the British Open more recently — Nick Faldo was the last to hold the claret jug, in 1992, also at Muirfield — Rose’s breakthrough win could serve as a launching pad for other English players without a major championship, such as Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, and Westwood.
The same thing happened a few years ago, when three players from Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Clarke) won three majors in a 13-month span.
“I really hope it does inspire them,” Rose said. “I think it was always going to be a matter of time before one of us broke through. It was just going to be who? I always hoped it was going to be me to be the first, obviously.
“But I really hope that it sort of has broken the spell. There have been some great [British] players that have had their chances and it hasn’t quite happened for them. I hope that [winning the US Open] is going to be a little bit of motivation for them to step up.”
Of the Northern Ireland comparison, Westwood would say only, “Yeah, hopefully it’ll happen with the English boys now.”
Especially if he’s the one who benefits. Westwood is coming off two poor showings at the British: He tied for 45th last year, and missed the cut in 2011. But he tied for eighth at this year’s Masters, and tied for 15th last month at Merion. The game is certainly there.
The quest begins anew Thursday, when Westwood, Sergio Garcia, and Charl Schwartzel begin play at 9:01 a.m. Boston time.
“We talk every year that, of the four majors, this is the best opportunity for Lee because he’s such a good ball striker,” said two-time US Open winner Curtis Strange, also part of the ESPN announcing crew. “If he has a good week on the greens . . . he can certainly do it.
“I would never write this guy off as not being able to win this event this year.”