The best player never to win a major, they called him again, as if Lee Westwood were carrying a heavy load of broken dreams in his golf bag when he walked down the first fairway into a glorious Antrim afternoon on Saturday.
The man who never quite got it done. The man who finished second three times. The man who contended and fell away. The man who has left it too late.
It is a wonder Westwood could stagger around the course under the weight of all that baggage other people have dumped on him, let alone play golf.
Lee Westwood has been regularly called the best golfer to never win a major this week
Let alone stay near the top of the leaderboard throughout the third day. But those are other people’s concerns, not his. He is used to the vicissitudes of this game by now. He wears them lightly.
When things were going well on the front nine and he was holding a share of the lead with Shane Lowry and JB Holmes, Westwood lapped it up. After his tee shot had come to rest in a hollow by the side of the sixth green and he had saved par with a masterful up and down, he flashed a grin as he walked to the seventh tee. ‘I wouldn’t want to try that again,’ he said.
And on the way to the eighth, he shared a joke with Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie about how easy it was to carry a golf bag. The joke was layered because his partner, Helen Storey, is caddying for him this week at Royal Portrush.
‘I keep telling her the bag’s light,’ said Westwood, ‘but she won’t listen to me.’
Westwood’s partner, Helen Storey, (left) is caddying for him this week at Royal Portrush
On that front nine, Westwood rolled back the years to when he was the world No 1 and a regular contender for major championships. Between 2008 and 2016, Westwood came second in two Masters and The Open, and third in two Opens, two US Opens, the US PGA and the Masters. For nine holes on Saturday, it was easy to forget he was now 46 and in the autumn of his career.
For a while, he outplayed Fleetwood. He birdied the second, third and fourth holes, sinking clutch putts on every one of them.
When he went to 10 under par on the fourth with a six-footer, he pumped the air with his fist as if he could feel all the old magic coursing back through his game. The sun glinted off the Atlantic and Westwood seemed at peace.
But on the back nine, his fortunes changed. Suddenly, the afternoon was all about Lowry, not the Irishman who had been expected to tear up this course but a man with fanatical local support nonetheless.
Huge roars for Lowry’s exploits were the soundtrack to the rest of Westwood’s afternoon. Fleetwood began to move away from him, too.
For a while, he outplayed Tommy Fleetwood – as he birdied second, third and fourth holes
On the 10th, an errant tee shot left Westwood’s ball lodged in a bush and he refused to barter for a free drop. It cost him a shot but won him some friends. ‘Very sporting of Lee Westwood not to attempt to argue his way to a free drop on 10,’ Padraig Harrington wrote on Twitter.
‘With all the recent rules decisions, it reminds us of the honour at the heart of the game.’
It was Westwood’s first bogey for 32 holes and he spent the remainder of his round desperately trying to cling on to that consistency. It did not desert him completely but he had to work hard to get it to stay with him.
He dropped another shot on the 14th when he left a six-foot putt agonisingly short and on the 15th, he sank to his haunches in despair when a long putt lipped out. He sliced his tee shot at the par-three 16th, known as Calamity, to the very edge of disaster but it stopped on the brink of the precipice to the right of the green and he saved par.
He had to fight not to drop another shot on the 17th too, after another wayward drive, but he did it. And when he sank a short putt for par on the last and a round of 70, he took off his hat, kissed Storey and grinned.
Shane Lowry opened up a four-shot lead at The Open by setting a course record on Saturday
It might not have been the day he wanted, he might not have kept pace either with Lowry or with Fleetwood but he is still not quite out of the hunt yet.
Nobody could live with 32-year-old Lowry on Saturday. He was inspired. It already feels as if it is written in the stars that he will win this tournament on its first return to Ireland for 68 years, and it was not just Westwood who was powerless to resist his surge to 16 under with a quite brilliant round of 63.
Still, the leaderboard shows that Westwood will begin on Sunday tied for sixth. He is eight shots behind Lowry but only four behind Fleetwood, who shot 66, and one back from Brooks Koepka (67) and Justin Rose (68).
If Lowry has a bad day, Westwood may yet come into the reckoning. He is a contender again. He will play on Sunday with Danny Willett, who won the Masters in 2016, one of those occasions when Westwood finished as runner-up.
Willett’s game collapsed in the aftermath of that victory and it is only recently that it has shown signs of being resuscitated. He shot a 65 on Saturday. There feels something apt about the two men playing together.
On that front nine, Westwood rolled back the years to when he was the world No 1
Westwood knows he will not have many more chances like this. He does not play as many majors, for a start. But he has been such a staple of British and European golf for so long that it is worth celebrating returns to the top table like this when they arrive.
At 28, Fleetwood represents the new breed, of course. Now it is he who is trying to land that elusive first major. Perhaps, if he cannot reel Lowry in on Sunday, it will be the start of people asking whether it is ever going to happen for him. Perhaps the pressure will start to hang around his neck as it has been hung around Westwood’s.
Westwood, at least, will have nothing to lose on Sunday. This is a bonus. It is an extra. He has had a wonderful career. He was the world No 1. He is a European Ryder Cup hero.
Maybe another shot at a major slipped away on Saturday but it didn’t feel like something to grieve for. It felt like seeing Westwood in the mix again was worth savouring, perhaps for one last time.
HONESTY IS LEE WESTWOOD’S POLICY IN BEATING ABOUT BUSH
Lee Westwood was praised for his honesty after he refused to take a free drop when he hit his ball into a bush during his third round at The Open.
Westwood, who was one shot off the lead at the time at 10 under par, found his tee shot on the 10th hole buried under the bush and a rules official judged the ball to be embedded in the ground.
Under new rules, if a ball is embedded anywhere in play that isn’t a bunker players are allowed to move it without incurring a penalty.
But that is only if the player would be able to take a swing at their ball if it were not embedded. If they could not, they have to take a one-shot penalty.
Officials asked Westwood if he would have played a shot were his ball not embedded.
Had he said yes, he would have been able to move his ball out of the bush with a free drop. But Westwood admitted he could not and was handed a penalty shot. He went on to bogey the hole.
Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington praised Westwood. ‘Very sporting of Lee Westwood not to attempt to argue his way to a free drop on 10,’ he tweeted. ‘It reminds us of the honour at the heart of the game.’
Westwood receives clarification on the rules on the 10th hole during the third round
He refused to take a free drop when he hit his ball into a bush at The Open on Saturday