Lee Westwood barely qualified for the 2016 Masters, so barely missing another opportunity to win a major was more therapeutic than stinging.
“I needed that,” Westwood said of his runner-up finish playing in the final round with champion Danny Willett. “I think when you haven’t played well for a long time, then you do start to have doubts in your mind. But it never takes long for golfers to snap out of it, really. We’re a pretty dumb breed.”
Westwood slipped into the Masters field after a harrowing wobble out and in the No. 50 spot in the world rankings at the year-end deadline. By the time he arrived in Augusta, he had fallen to 67th in the world and his confidence was on shaky ground.
“I didn’t have very high expectations going into the Masters,” he said.
But in 16 previous starts at Augusta, Westwood had good experiences to draw from, including a runner-up in 2010 and a tie for third in 2012.
“Even when I’m not playing that good I can usually get it around Augusta,” Westwood said. “So I was hoping to basically try to squeeze into the top 10 and get an invite back for next year. To actually get into contention and have a chance of winning was a real bonus.”
Sitting tied for eighth just four shot behind 54-hole leader Jordan Spieth to start Sunday, Westwood quietly moved up the leaderboard with birdies at 6, 7, 9 and 13 to offset a couple of bogeys. Then as Spieth coughed up his lead with a quadruple-bogey 7 on No. 12, Westwood chipped in for eagle on 15 to move within one of the new leader, Willett.
“I played a nice chip on 15,” he said. “Not many people hole that one under that kind of pressure.”
Westwood, who hails from Yorkshire in England along with Willett, didn’t have much time for friendly banter with his mate at that point.
“I wasn’t really talking to him,” Westwood said. “He was one of my least favorite players on the planet at that stage.”
As has often been the case, Westwood’s putter let him down on the next hole as he three-putted in conjunction with Willett’s birdie on 16 to fall three behind and effectively end his hopes. But he holed a couple of nice par saves on the last two holes to share runner-up with Spieth.
“I’ve been feeling edgy on the greens for a couple of years now,” he said. “You get under pressure in Augusta and the greens are running 16, 17 on the (Stimpmeter), you’re going to start feeling a little bit nervous, which I did. But I still made some nice putts coming in. … You come out and contend in the first major of the year, obviously I must be doing something right.”
The finish vaulted Westwood back to No. 35 in the world and got him into the U.S. Open, where he played on Sunday with eventual winner Dustin Johnson only to shoot 78 on Oakmont’s treacherous greens to fall from fourth to 32nd.
It also helped earn him a captain’s pick from Darren Clarke onto his 10th Ryder Cup team.
“Obviously it was nice to give Darren a nudge that I could still play golf under pressure against the best players in the world,” Westwood said.
Most of all, he proved it to himself. At age 42, his Masters performance was a confidence boost that extended his career on the elite stages.
“We’re only one good shot, really, from a comeback,” he said in the weeks after the Masters. “You start to feel the right things in your golf swing, and it can have an almost immediate effect. I’ll just see a couple of putts go in, and starting the ball on line, it can change in the click of a finger.
“And obviously there’s a great knock-on effect for world rankings and Ryder Cup qualification with the points won. It’s nice to secure places in the big tournaments for the rest of the year.”
Westwood ended up making the cut in all the majors last year and has played relatively consistent golf to start 2017, though he’s once again slipped to the edge of the top-50 bubble.
“I’ve been playing solid without getting full results from the way I’m playing,” he said. “I’m working on all aspects of the game – short game, mental side of it, putting. You know what golf’s like. It’s just fine tuning all the time and tinkering around with it and trying to find what works.”