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Lee Westwood rebuilds game from scratch

For Lee Westwood, the time has come to add some honest-to-goodness graft to a natural talent that just two years ago took him almost to the pinnacle of golf. Ranked No 5 in the world at the start of 2001, he now lies outside the top 150 and cannot quite work out how he got there.
Westwood has suffered not so much a slump as a nosedive. European golfer of the year in 1998 and winner of the Order of Merit two years later, he has spent two years out of sorts with his game and out of contention in tournaments. Seven victories in 2000 bore testament to an immense skill; ten missed cuts in 27 events last year simply confirmed his fall from grace.

His despair echoes that of Nick Faldo, who won a record six European Tour events in 1983, only to see his form dip dramatically the following season. Faldo, who went on to establish himself as arguably the greatest British player of them all, chose a drastic course of action. Working with David Leadbetter, then a relatively unknown coach, he risked all on a remodelled swing. It took two years, hard work and a lot of heartache to bear fruit, but with six major championships to his name, Faldo is not complaining.

It is to Leadbetter, who has successfully taken Justin Rose under his wing, that Westwood has now turned. As he prepared to get his season under way here on the eve of the South African Airways Open yesterday, the three-time Ryder Cup player — who secured three points when Europe beat the United States at The Belfry last September — was in reflective mood.

“In 2000 things were going that well, I was winning tournaments, had a lot of confidence,” he said. “I sat back and didn’t work on the parts of my swing that I needed to. But it’s hard to change things when they’re going well.

“I had a long break between the end of 2000 and the start of 2001 (his wife, Laurae, gave birth to their first child, Samuel, that April) and I lost my timing. I came out, didn’t play very well and it didn’t take very long for my confidence to go. It’s hard to get it back.

“Now I want to feel like I’m making a few good swings, start hitting a few good shots and get into a position where I feel I can contend for a tournament again. I am going to see David Leadbetter in Florida for ten days at the end of the month. I’ve worked with David before (for a short time in 2000). He had some good ideas and it worked.”

While Westwood, 29, has no plans for a complete overhaul of his swing, he is ruling nothing out. “You never know what will happen when I get there,” he said. “I’m open to suggestions now after the last couple of years. It’s been quite frustrating, but these things happen. You have to plough on through it.”

Beneath a cool exterior, and despite having amassed in excess of £4 million in prize-money alone, Westwood’s ambitions still burn bright, but he accepts that he has a long way to go to get back to the top. In his “absence”, the likes of Rose, Nick Dougherty, Luke Donald, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter— all of them English and in their early 20s — have begun to move to the forefront of the British game.

“My ambitions are still as strong as they ever were,” Westwood said. “I want to get back to where I was. I’m not thinking about the majors because the position I’m in in the world rankings, I’m not in most of them. It’s a case of building it up slowly. I’ve got to get into the top 50 in the world and go from there.”

Therein lies the rub. On being voted European golfer of the year five years ago, it was the majors that interested him most. “Obviously I want to play well in the majors, because when I sit down in 40 years’ time that is the way great golfers are measured,” he said at the time. “People talk of Faldo and you only hear of his six majors. It would be nice to write a few lines in the record books at some stage, win a few majors — win them all, maybe. It’s possible. I think I’ve got the kind of game that’s right for all of them.”

His immediate task is to put together a good game around the beautiful Erinvale course here before moving on to Johannesburg next week for the dunhill championship. An intriguing pairing for the first day has Rose alongside Casey. Team-mates at the World Cup in Mexico last month, it will be interesting to see how they play against each other, rather than for each other.

 

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