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Golf News: - Posted 5th April 1998

Lee Westwood gets a massive boost to his confidence

By Mark Garrod, PA Sport Golf Correspondent

New Orleans - Britain's Lee Westwood goes into this week's Masters riding the crest of a wave after winning the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans today.

The 24-year-old made it look a piece of cake too.

Westwood, in only his eighth ever event in America, captured his first US Tour victory and the seventh win of his four-year professional career by three strokes from left-hander Steve Flesch. Ian Woosnam, winner in 1991, finished joint eighth.

The star turn nearly all week at the appropriately-named English Turn course, Westwood won the 188,000 first prize with a 15-under-par total of 273 after a closing 69 - his fourth sub-70 round of the week.

Thirteenth and fifth in the Bay Hill Invitational and Players Championship in the previous two weeks, Westwood, one ahead overnight, was never seriously threatened from the moment he birdied the second and fourth holes to go three clear.

He had to save par from off the green at the seventh, eighth and ninth. But after turning in 34 he made a 10-footer on the 420-yard 10th and a curling 30-footer on the long 11th.

That put the Worksop player five ahead, and his only anxious moment came on the 469-yard 14th. From the edge of the thick rough bordering the green he elected to putt, but the club caught the grass and as the ball popped up he hit it again in his follow-through.

Westwood immediately declared the double hit just in case his playing partners had not witnessed it - and, cool as you like, he promptly holed from 15 feet to drop only one stroke.

That was immediately recouped, a great second over the lake and on to the green at the 542-yard 15th (a hole that saw a 13 and an 11 yesterday) setting up a near-eagle.

Left-hander Flesch, who had opened with 14 straight pars, matched the birdie with a 20-foot putt, and the gap became three when Westwood three-putted the 17th.

But the Ryder Cup man hit a superb drive down the dangerous 471-yard last, once rated the toughest hole on the US Tour, followed it with an iron to the back of the green and safely two-putted this time to the cheers of the crowd.

He raised both arms in triumph to complete a fabulous fortnight in which he has won more than 270,000.

Westwood had faced a test of patience as well as golf. It took an hour to play the first three holes and two hours 40 minutes to complete the first half.

There were the inevitable cheers of "You're the Man" and "Go Lee" for the popular British youngster on the first tee when he was introduced.

"It goes with the territory," he said after his third-round 67 had taken him from three behind to one ahead.

"As long as it's not at the top of the backswing I don't mind it. I like the atmosphere here. I'm having a great time."

He expected to be "excited and nervous, but not uncontrollably so. To get into contention gets the adrenalin going. I like the smell of victory."

Jose Maria Olazabal, who finished on four under, said of Westwood: "It's his attitude, his ability to relax, that sets him apart. He is very long; he has a great touch around the green for a man of his build and he's a very good putter. But when I look at Lee Westwood I think most of his composure. That impresses me most."

Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle were 26 before they first won in America in 1984, but Tony Jacklin was 23 when he captured the Greater Jacksonville Open in 1968, the year before he won the Open at Royal Lytham.

Seve Ballesteros was only 21 when he landed the Greater Greensboro Open in 1978 - also the year before he won the Open at Lytham.

Westwood took up the game along with his maths teacher father after watching Jack Nicklaus on television win the last of his six Masters titles at Augusta in 1986. He was just short of his 13th birthday at the time.

Coached at first by John King, the club professional at Worksop, he got his handicap down to plus four - nearly plus five in fact - and won the British youths' title before leaving the amateur ranks in 1993.

Having represented England at boys, youths and senior level, he already had confidence in his ability, and it showed as he came through the ordeal of the tour qualifying school at the first attempt and finished 43rd on the European Order of Merit in his first season.

His first victory came in the 1996 Scandinavian Masters - with a 40-foot birdie putt at the second hole of a play-off with Paul Broadhurst and Russell Claydon - and he ended that year by beating Costantino Rocca at the fourth extra hole in the Visa Taiheiyo Masters in Spain.

Finishing sixth on the Order of Merit brought him a letter on Christmas Eve inviting him to the Masters. It was his first trip to America, but after starting with a double-bogey six he battled back to be 24th, the position he needed to earn a return trip this year.

Westwood's main memory of his debut is being paired with Nicklaus in the final round. When he saw the draw he went and bought a poster of Nicklaus winning in 1986, put it in his bag and asked the Golden Bear to sign it after they played.

"Well played and good luck," said Nicklaus.

But Westwood has not needed much luck since - talent has seen him go from strength to strength.

He comfortably made the Ryder Cup team without winning a qualifying event, finishing 19th in the US Open, 10th in the Open and 29th in the US PGA. After coping with the unrivalled pressures of the Ryder Cup, he went on to win in Spain, Japan again and then Australia in November.

Now he is closing in on the world's top 10, having been 104th only 20 months ago.

He was playing in New Orleans on a special sponsor's invitation - and the last player to take advantage of such a chance on the US Tour was world number one Tiger Woods, the man whose Masters title he will now go gunning for this week.

Westwood said in his winner's speech: "I've had a great time this week and I'd like to thank the fans for coming out and supporting me.

"It's been almost like playing at home and I'd love to come back and defend next year."