GULLANE, Scotland — They urged him along — in the proper British manner, of course — as Lee Westwood gingerly made his way Friday around the baked links of Muirfield. Nothing to get overly excited about, because it was only the second round of the British Open and this, after all, was an act they had seen before.
Westwood didn’t seem terribly excited himself, perhaps because he understands only too well what trouble lies ahead. Muirfield, with its slick greens and nasty rough, will be a treacherous place this weekend with potential disaster lurking on every shot.
Still, the people in the gallery quietly pulling for Westwood had to ponder the possibilities. So did Westwood after a 68 that left him just a shot off the lead midway through the Open.
After a year where British athletes have made breakthroughs on the grass at Wimbledon and in the hills of France, why not? In a year where a Brit is the champion of the other Open they hold across the pond, why not one at home where the game itself was invented?
Why not, indeed.
“There’s definitely a feel-good factor in Britain,” Westwood conceded.
No matter that this Englishman now lives in Florida, where Westwood moved his family during the offseason so he could sharpen his game and prolong his career. Instead of toiling in the rain in his home country he does his work at a swanky country club among other expatriate players in West Palm Beach.
But he’s still as British as fish and chips and this still is his national championship. To say he’s desperate to win it — or any major championship — might be a stretch, but he’s getting to the point in his career where there won’t be as many chances.
“I love playing The Open Championship,” Westwood said. “This is the biggest tournament of the year for me, being a Brit, and it being played in Britain. And why not enjoy it out there? It’s tough for everybody.”
His reign didn’t last long and is by now largely forgotten, but Westwood was once the No. 1 player in the world, replacing Tiger Woods at the top a few years back when Woods was still sorting out problems that had nothing to do with golf. Westwood still holds a title of sorts — the mantle as the best player never to have won a major — going 61 major championships now without hoisting one claret jug or trying on one green jacket.
He’s been awfully good for a long time, winning 39 times around the world and gaining a reputation as one of the best ball strikers around. But his short game has kept him from winning even more, especially in the big tournaments where the greens are slick and it takes a crisp touch and strong nerves to survive.
On Friday, though, he was making 10-footers as if they were routine tap-ins. He made birdies early then saved a bunch of pars before letting a shot get away at the final hole that would have made him feel even better about a day he already felt pretty good about.
“He’s definitely putted — chipped and putted — better than he usually does,” playing partner Sergio Garcia said. “He’s practiced a lot and you can see it. Some days it comes out better and some others it doesn’t come out that great. But he’s done very well these first two days.”
Whether there are two more days of that in Westwood is the question now. History is not on his side, but it might just be that the lessons learned from earlier failures could be pivotal on a weekend shaping up to be a free for all.
And if countryman Andy Murray can become the first Brit to win Wimbledon since 1936, who’s to say Westwood can’t become the first Englishman to win the Open since Nick Faldo did it 21 years ago?
Well, Westwood for one. He’s not about to get ahead of himself just quite yet.
“I’m just concentrating on what I’ve got going on at the moment,” he said.
Probably a good strategy, considering the near misses Westwood has had. A 3-putt on the last hole in 2009 kept him out of a playoff with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink for the title, and he had close calls in both the U.S. Open and the 2010 Masters, where he took a lead into the final day only to be passed by Phil Mickelson.
Westwood is 40 now, an age where players don’t win their first major, unless you count Darren Clarke, who won the British two years ago and was last seen still celebrating his good fortune.
But this is a tournament where pot-bellied, cigar-smoking Miguel Angel Jimenez and his ponytail are leading at the age of 49.
After that, anything seems possible.