Publish date:


It's a curious fact that kids at a golf tournament--being less
interested in the competition than in the carnival aspect--tend
to collect around railings, scaffolds and other bits of
temporary infrastructure. Lee Westwood, the young English pro,
was 16 when he saw his first Ryder Cup, at the Belfry in 1989,
and his clearest memories are of steel pipes and the undersides
of aluminum planks. "I was hanging under the grandstand when
Christy O'Connor Jr. hit his two-iron to four feet to win the
Cup," Westwood said last week at the British Open. "I didn't
exactly have the best view, but you could see a bit through
people's legs."

So of course Westwood was amused by all the youngsters running
around Royal Troon--beneficiaries of a new Open policy admitting
under-18s for free. At the practice ground, where children clung
to the rails of a police barricade, Westwood won friends by
occasionally strolling over to chat and sign autographs. Last
Thursday afternoon he struck up a conversation with 10-year-old
Tom Chambers of Birmingham, England, a visored youngster with an
appealing smile and a red autograph book. "Who's the best player
you've got so far?" asked Westwood.

"Ernie Els," said Tom. "You're supposed to say me," Westwood
said, looking hurt.

Well, it's only a matter of time. In the last year and a half
Westwood, a schoolteacher's son from the one-time mining town of
Worksop, has won tournaments in Europe, Japan and Malaysia,
pocketed more than 1 million [pounds] in prize money and shot to
fourth in the European Ryder Cup standings. In April, at his
first Masters, Westwood drew notice by recovering from a
first-round 77 to finish 24th. While coming in 19th at the U.S.
Open in June, he startled analysts by ranking fifth in driving
distance and leading the field in greens hit in regulation. He
has even been given the official kiss of death--by European
Ryder Cup captain Seve Ballesteros, no less, who last year
called Westwood "the Tiger Woods of Europe."

Westwood was better than Woods by two strokes at Troon,
finishing a solid 10th at two under, but Ballesteros's
comparison is the kind that makes Americans smile and Europeans
shudder. It has been a decade since the emergence of Jose Maria
Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, and subsequent wunderkinder have
quickly become whatever-happened-tos. England's Steven
Richardson, once touted as the next Jack Nicklaus, finished
second on the European tour in '91 and performed brilliantly at
that year's Ryder Cup but has since played his way into
obscurity. Gordon Sherry, the tall Scottish amateur who stole
the spotlight from Woods at the '95 Open at St. Andrews, turned
pro in '96 and turned sour by '97, losing his game and his
European tour card.

Consequently, the European Ryder Cup team has failed to renew
itself in the '90s. The British and the Irish, in particular,
tend to view their young stars as flat-dwellers pondering the
purchase of a flourishing houseplant--i.e., with distrust. The
28-year-old Northern Irishman, Darren Clarke, whose tie for
second at Troon was his seventh top 10 finish this year, is
second in the Ryder Cup rankings and looks ready to blossom. But
so did Peter Baker, a Ryder Cupper and two-time winner in 1993,
and now Baker's brown leaves are all over the floor. Ireland's
Padraig Harrington, 11th in the Ryder Cup rankings after his tie
for fifth at Troon, won the Spanish Open in May 1996 but hasn't
been able to win since and reminds some onlookers of Andrew
Coltart, who visits the top five often but has no victories in
seven seasons and is overripe on the vine.

Few who know Westwood expect him to wilt. "He's like Tiger Woods
in that he hasn't learned to be afraid," says a British writer.
"His biggest asset is his attitude," echoes Peter Cowen, swing
coach to both Westwood and Clarke. "He's unflappable."

"Nothing bothers me," agrees Westwood, who was so relaxed after
an opening 73 at Troon that he lay on the ground on the driving
range, soaking up the sunshine and sweet meadow smells like a
poet on holiday. Clearly Westwood is not intimidated by big
names. Playing with Nicklaus in the final round of the Masters,
Westwood shot 70 to the great man's 78, and when Nicklaus
apologized for his play the youngster put his arm around the
Bear and said, "It's just nice being out here with you." ("A
very nice player," Nicklaus confirmed at Troon, "and he handles
himself well.")

When Westwood turned up as a European tour rookie in '93, his
insouciance struck some as brashness. "He didn't give serious
answers to questions," says London Sunday Times golf writer
Lauren St. John, "but he's learned. Now I find him sincere and
direct. 'Unspoiled' is the word."

The fact that Westwood has become chums with Clarke is
intriguing to those who know the moody, impulsive Irishman. From
Clarke, Westwood draws a certain spark, an aggressiveness he
otherwise might not possess. Clark, in turn, has learned to be
more patient and resilient. "If Darren had Lee's attitude he
could be one of the great players," says Cowen. "Darren knows
that, and he's starting to change." To cement their symbiotic
relationship, Westwood recently joined Clarke in a thoroughbred
racehorse syndicate in Ireland. One of their horses, Hopping
Higgins, finished second in a Ladies Day race at Ascot, but
Westwood claims he lacks his friend's taste for the big wager.
"I do like watching the horses," he says.

How Westwood came to be one of the horses in Europe's golf
stable is another story. When he was 12, his chiropodist mum,
Trish, bought a set of children's clubs from a patient. ("Lee
didn't take to fishing," says his father, John, an avid angler
when he isn't teaching math at the Valley Comprehensive School
in Nottinghamshire.) Showing aptitude from the start, Lee took
lessons at the local municipal course and by 14 was a member at
the Worksop Golf Club. He won Britain's Peter McEvoy Trophy, a
national junior championship, as a 17-year-old, and in 1993,
shortly before turning pro, he won the British Youths'
Championship by seven strokes. His pro career was mostly one of
promise until last year, when he turned to Cowen, the way Nick
Faldo turned to David Leadbetter, to do a complete overhaul of
his swing.

"A year last March it was," says Westwood. "We worked on my
trajectory--the ball was ballooning up on me--and got my weight
loaded more on my right foot on the backswing." Cowen also gave
Westwood a lesson on the impact position, using photographs of
Els and Ben Hogan. "It was difficult at first, but now I'm
confident," says Westwood. "I can be more aggressive and hit the
ball harder." Just how hard Westwood showed at Troon on
Thursday, when he put his tee ball up in the sea wind and
reached the green on the 364-yard 1st hole.

Cowen's contribution to Westwood's game produced immediate
results in 1996. Beginning that May, the Worksop pro finished in
the top 12 in 11 of 18 starts and got his first European tour
win at the Scandinavian Masters in Goteborg, Sweden, where he
beat Russell Claydon and Ryder Cup veteran Paul Broadhurst in a
playoff. Westwood tied for second at the Volvo Masters--at
Valderrama, site of September's Ryder Cup--and then won
late-season tournaments in the shadow of Mt. Fuji (the Taiheiyo
Masters, in which he beat Costantino Rocca and Jeff Sluman in a
playoff) and in the sunshine of Malaysia (the Malaysian Open,
which led to an endorsement deal that has an unfamiliar flag on
his golf bag over the words VISIT MALAYSIA). Only recently,
though, did Westwood buy the Porsche he had promised himself as
a reward for his first professional victory. "It came too soon,"
he explains.

Fast cars and racehorses, you see, could give people the wrong
impression. Last Friday, Westwood celebrated his second-round 70
by tossing his ball to a group of youngsters waiting at the 18th
green. The day before, he had thrilled young Chambers of
Birmingham by carrying the red autograph book across the range
to be signed by Coltart--whose sister, Laurae, Westwood is
engaged to marry.

"We're pleased that Lee's a good golfer," John Westwood said
last Saturday, having just watched his son shoot 67 to join
Woods on the leader board at three under par. "That's nice, but
we are thrilled to death when he puts his divots back and tips
his hat to people. That's when you're proud of him, from a
parent's point of view."

The point of view of a Ryder Cup captain is somewhat different:
Ballesteros wants players who eat their divots and tip their
caps only when they've got at least one spiked shoe on an
opponent's neck. Surprisingly, the otherwise amiable Westwood
may be his man. When Montgomerie shot 62 on the last day to beat
him at the Irish Open, Westwood's unexpected response was, "I
can shoot eight or nine under as well as he can." Asked if he
had learned anything from a recent round with the reigning
English star, Faldo, he replied, "Not really. He's not playing
that well."

Troon tested his mettle--several times--and Westwood refused to
buckle. Paired with Greg Norman for two rounds, he endured
galleries that swept away like the tide whenever the Shark holed
out, yet Westwood drained all of his knee-knockers without
complaint. At the 1st hole on Saturday, Westwood pitched long to
the base of his old Ryder Cup mate, the grandstand, and made
bogey. Instead of thwarting his hoped-for charge, the mishap
spurred him to a five-birdies-in-seven-holes streak. "If I want
to be the world Number 1," he said afterward, "I've got to beat
the best players, haven't I?"

There's the surprise: Westwood's frank admission that he aims to
be better than Tom Lehman, better than Norman, better than--dare
we say it?--Woods. Sunday's pairings had Westwood going off 10
minutes before the American prodigy, robbing the British press
of its Tiger Woods versus Tiger Westwood angle. Westwood,
however, was willing to wait for his first confrontation with
Woods. "It would be nice," he said, "if the first time was at

Last week, Westwood seemed content just to enjoy the lazy
Ayrshire afternoons. Returning the red autograph book on
Thursday, he lingered by the steel barricade to chat with
Chambers and some other kids, aware, perhaps, of the distance he
had come in eight short years.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Westwood tied for 10th at Troon but is fourth on the Ryder Cup list. [Lee Westwood golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS COLE Clarke was brilliant through 45 holes, when it looked as if he would leave the field in his dust. [Darren Clarke golfing out of bunker]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Ireland's Harrington, who tied for fifth at Troon, has yet to deliver on his early promise. [Padraig Harrington golfing]