Lee Westwood doesn’t make a habit of indulging in the past. The bedrock of the 48-year-old’s remarkable longevity has always been an insistence on looking forwards and refusing to rest on his laurels, even after he scaled golf’s peak over a decade ago. But for one of the Ryder Cup’s great statesmen, who has been front and centre in seven winning European teams, the sensations of nostalgia are still impossible to resist.
There are the “chills” when walking into the team’s locker room, the “pride” that’s felt during the opening ceremony but, above all, the “nerve-wracking” clamour of the first tee. The howls and heckles that combine into a rapture unlike anything golf’s ears know. It’s a kaleidoscope of emotions with which Westwood is by now intimately familiar and yet still never fails to spin the week into “a bit of a blur”.
“The Ryder Cup memories are the most vivid [in my career]. It must be because you’re sharing it with other people. You get to see it from different perspectives, and it gives you a different appreciation rather than just seeing it your own way. It’s so special that you’re actually sharing it with other players,” Westwood says a few days before convening with his teammates at Whistling Straits. “It’s like contending in the final round of a major championship, that’s as close as it gets really. Once you’ve played in one, you don’t want to miss another.”
Westwood’s astonishing record in the event is the greatest testament to that. This will be his 11th appearance, tying the European record set by Nick Faldo, whom Westwood made his debut alongside in the foursomes at Valderrama in 1997. That feat is something of a surprise even to the man himself. After failing to make the team for the first time in two decades, he took on a vice-captaincy role in 2018 and this week was supposed to amount to a final rehearsal for his own leadership in 2022. Instead, a spectacular renaissance in form over the past two years, owing to a revised, free-spirited approach, stripping back the stresses to uncover a simpler joy, propelled him into an automatic qualification spot.
“It wasn’t a goal [to make the team] and it was never front and foremost in my mind,” he says. “I was looking more to a future of doing a captaincy somewhere down the line. I’m proud that I still work hard enough to play at that level because you don’t get many 48-year-olds doing that.
Team Europe vice-captain Lee Westwood celebrates with Tommy Fleetwood in 2018
“I will have to sit down after this Ryder Cup and have a good think about what I want to do over the next couple of years. Do I want to put my name forward for Rome [in 2023] or have another crack at playing? I don’t think at my age you can do both. It’s a full-on job and there’s not enough time in the day to be a captain and concentrate on your own game as well.”
If this is to be Westwood’s last playing appearance at a Ryder Cup, it’s already guaranteed to leave no shortfall in memories. There was his moving partnership with Darren Clarke in 2006, the putt he holed to win his first singles match and all but seal victory at Oakland Hills two years earlier, and the agonising heartache of the short one dragged wide in 2016 that proved just as pivotal in Europe’s defeat. He has embraced and endured just about all the captivating chaos the tournament can yield, boasts a narrow but ultimately positive overall record of 20-18-6, and insists there is no added pressure to crown his legacy. “What’s finishing in style?” he asks matter-of-factly. “I could go out there and shoot 62 and still lose.”
There is, though, at least a slight acknowledgement of sentimentality. “Just to be there and look around and take more of it in than I probably have done in the past will be me winning next week,” he says. “It’s going to be different not having [European] fans there but it’s such a great environment to play golf in. All I can do is go out and try my best and enjoy it as much as possible. And if we can keep 40,000 American fans quiet, the silence will be deafening.”
Westwood bristles at the idea that Europe are underdogs, even if it seems hard to dispute otherwise, at least by way of recent form and world rankings. It is a background noise he’s heard on countless occasions and grown used to cancelling out. “That’s just people’s opinions,” he says. “As a team, we don’t pay attention to that. It’s irrelevant really.” But there’s little doubting that experience will be key if Europe are to seal another famous victory on away soil. “Everybody is going to be nervous, everyone wants to win points for the team, so it’s easy mentally to get carried away,” he says. “You’ve got to try and enjoy it and have fun and that’s obviously a lot easier to do with experience. That’s why I guess Padraig [Harrington] picked Poults [Ian Poulter] and Sergio [Garcia]. They have an impact not just on the course but in the team room. If you’re a rookie, you can feed off how relaxed they are.”
What’s sure is that nobody will exude that wisened sense of calm this week quite like Westwood. It is the principle that has guided his autumn resurgence and become the antidote to age. A final tilt as a player will take him further still into the Ryder Cup’s record books. This time, he might just stop and smell the roses, too.
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