Former World No.1
On top of the world rankings as recently as 2010, Lee Westwood now sits nervously on the outer edges of the world's top 50. Does his steady slide signal the end?
Having recently tipped the wrong side of 40, Lee Westwood’s biggest problem may well be the one thing he cannot work on.
“It’s possible that, because of his age, we may have seen the best of Lee Westwood,” says leading swing coach David Leadbetter, who famously tutored Nick Faldo to six major titles and Nick Price to three. “He is getting older and is now in his 40s, and golf at the highest level these days is more and more of a young man’s game.”
Westwood himself knows this, of course. In 2012, aged 39, he moved his wife and children from the home comforts of Worksop to the sunshine of Florida in an attempt to prolong his time at the top. “There are a number of reasons (for the move),” he said at the time, “but the main one is I haven’t got that much time left at the top and I want to give myself the best chance of staying there as long as I can.”
Has the move worked? In some senses yes, but in others, no. Westwood still hasn’t landed the major that has eluded him for two decades now, and he has fallen down the world ranking since heading across the Pond. However, unlike the other two men profiled in this piece – Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald – he has at least remained inside the world’s top 50, ranked 38th at the time of writing.
The issue of age aside, Westwood’s other big issue has been a problem with getting the ball into the hole. Still one of the game’s premier ball-strikers, the nine-time Ryder Cup player’s high scores are not so high because of the superior quality of his long game. But his low scores are generally not as low as they could be because of his relatively poor putting.
“Lee still hits the ball as well as he ever did,” confirms leading coach Gary Nicol. “But his putting is not great. And it probably won’t get any better at his age. He has a lot of scar tissue to deal with and deep down he must know that. But he deserves all the admiration in the world for the way in which he keeps going. That must be hard.”
By scar tissue and the struggles to keep going, Nicol is of course referring to Westwood’s many near misses in the majors – two second places in 2010, a T3 in 2011 and 2012 and, most recently, the gut-wrenching T3 at Muirfield in 2013 when the Claret Jug was almost within his grasp. But we might also factor in the very public end to his 16-year marriage, a tale recently dragged out across the tabloid newspapers. Either way, to suggest Westwood’s biggest problem may be more mental rather than physical can’t be too far from the truth.
That’s certainly the case with a putting stroke that appears to become over-analysed. “It’s not the smoothest stroke,” says Nicol. “It has become technical only through lack of confidence. His aim, his strike, his stroke are all sound. But the tempo is flawed. He looks ponderous and a bit ‘hitty’ at times. And it changes week-to-week. Better putters look the same all the time, which is why they win tournaments. I worry for Lee’s future. I’m sure he will win again, but not at the very highest level. I think that if he was going to do that, we would have seen it by now.”
GOLF WORLD PREDICTS: As he has proved many times over the years, Westwood has a game well suited to the major championships. In that environment, a strong tee-to-green game is more likely to prevail over the chippers-and-putters. As long as he continues to find a high percentage of fairways and greens, his hopes of finally claiming that elusive major championship live on, even at 42.
Ranked 6th in the world following his 2010 US Open win, G-Mac has since slid out of the top 50. But has it been a loss of form or lack of focus that have contributed to his fall?
Unlike most of his peers, Graeme McDowell’s strengths haven’t always been obvious to the naked eye. Never the longest hitter in town, guts, self-belief and determination to succeed have always carried him further than an aesthetically pleasing and technically correct golf swing.
What has always been very evident though, is that the Northern Irishman has long been a man you would want on your side in a golfing battle. Nine points from 15 Ryder Cup encounters, with three singles wins from four, his record speaks volumes of his stomach for the fight.
“Graeme’s technique has limited him to an extent,” says David Leadbetter. “But he’s had a very successful career so clearly it’s worked for him.” But would it have worked even better if he had changed his swing? “I’m not sure about that,” says Leadbetter. “But clearly he’s made the most of what he had. He was never going to be the longest on tour but he worked the ball well and he was always aggressive.
“Sometimes it is just that we expect more out of players than we should. Some, like Gary Player, are very driven. But not everyone has the same level of motivation. When you have more responsibilities in your life, things change.”
When McDowell won the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, he was a single man living in a bachelor-pad penthouse, although you could hardly claim his lifestyle was one of reckless excess. Nowadays, aged 36, married with a daughter and a part-owner of a restaurant near his home in Lake Nona, Florida, G-Mac’s focus may inevitably and understandably have changed.
“When kids come along, everything changes,” says Leadbetter. “There are so many demands on a parent’s time. Golf is a very selfish sport, one that is easy to pursue when you are young and single. But when you lose a bit of that selfishness, I think you lose a bit of the edge you need too. That’s what I have seen in players.”
Understandably, McDowell has clearly lost a lot of confidence over the course of a 2015 season in which he has fallen out of the world’s top 50. His US Open win in 2010 safeguarded his p ace in this year’s majors, but his performances did little to suggest a return to major-chasing form. A T52 in the Masters was followed by a missed cut in the US Open, a T49 at St Andrews in the Open and another missed cut at the US PGA.
Speaking at the Irish Open in late May, where he finished nine shots short of winner Soren Kjeldsen, McDowell was already sounding like a man searching for answers. “I grew up playing courses like this (Royal County Down),” he said. “But I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know how to play this sort of golf anymore. You lose the creativity and the art form that is playing golf in the wind. But it’s been great to come out here and get punished for a few days and really play some raw golf and realise that you don’t have the skill set you used to have.
“I need to get back to the golfer I used to be when I was a kid. I guess I’ve played too much straightforward golf.”
GOLF WORLD PREDICTS: Motivation is more easily retrieved than a putting touch or 20 extra yards. No aspect of McDowell's game was ever especially brilliant, but the sum of the parts often was – and that skillset could feasibly be rediscovered. At just 36, he has time on his side. Just as crucially, he knows he can win a major. If he can rediscover his fire, his form may follow. Don't write him off yet.
Former World No.1
The world's greatest player in 2011 has since fallen slowly down and out of the world's top 50. But is there more to his demise than the cooling of his once red-hot putter?
On top of the world as recently as 2011, the last few months and years have been less kind to Luke Donald.
Falling out of the all-important world top 50, the 37-year-old Englishman was forced to pre-qualify for both the US Open and the Open in 2015. That he emerged unscathed and finished in a tie for 12th at St Andrews may be commendable, but his mere presence amongst the hopefuls speaks volumes of his recent struggles.
What seems clear is that Luke Donald’s decline coincided with his decision to leave his long-time coach, Pat Goss, and sign up the services of Chuck Cook. The change was born of a perceived need for Donald to add the 30-40 yards off the tee to bring his drives up alongside the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.
But in his chase for extra yards, Donald inevitably neglected what had hitherto been the strongest part of his golfing armoury – his play from within 100 yards of the green.
“Luke’s formula for success was to hole everything on the greens, which he did in the year leading up to him topping the world rankings,” says a high-profile swing coach who asked not to be identified. “Nowadays he doesn’t do that. And by all accounts he hasn’t been working as hard on his game as he once did. His foot has been off the pedal. He has enjoyed what he has earned.”
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of one’s labours, of course, particularly as a married man with three young children. But it does tend to have an adverse effect on a player’s performances. Having been overlooked for a Ryder Cup pick by the European captain Paul McGinley a year ago, Donald fired Chuck Cook and re-hired Pat Goss. The unnamed swing coach believes that move worked, but only to a degree.
“Luke is hitting the ball better after going back to his old coach,” he says. “He tried to improve that with Chuck Cook and it just didn’t work, so he’s gone back to where he was in terms of ball striking. But that still requires that he has a great short game, a thing you can’t live on in the modern game.
“It’s not that long since Donald was world number one but in that time a number of players have emerged. Jordan Spieth wasn’t even a pro when Luke was number one. That’s how quickly things can change. Luke has been passed by a new generation who putt like he used to putt and who hit the ball miles past him off the tee.
“He’s now just a good professional who may or may not play in another Ryder Cup. Given that he is now sitting outside the top 50, he might not even do that.”
David Leadbetter isn’t surprised that Donald’s form has faltered. It was nothing if not inevitable. “At some stage – with very few exceptions – the putting deteriorates,” he points out. “That’s just a fact of golfing life – putting to that very high level is not something you can typically rely on long-term.
“So, while Luke made the most of his talents for a long time, he has some very big hurdles to overcome now. His strengths have gone backwards. In particular, he misses putts now he never missed before.”
GOLF WORLD PREDICTS: While he may not command the accuracy of 2011, Donald retains the 'puncher's chance' in any tournament, especially those played on courses where accuracy trumps length. But with the power game on an inexorable rise and his famed putting unlikely to get more nerveless over 40, it's hard to see Donald drive back to the top... though we'd love him to prove us wrong.