When Lee Westwood holed his putt on the 18th Saturday afternoon to complete a hat trick of birdies to close out for an even-par 72 at Wentworth, the first words longtime caddie Billy Foster uttered were not what you’d per se expect, like, “Well played,” “Good finish,” or even, “Great putt.”
Instead, Foster, with a big smile on his face, exclaimed, “23 putts!”
Even for the best putters in the world, that’s a commendable feat. I’m not sure how to look this up, but I should have asked at the time, in retrospect, if that was a career-best for Westwood, who is lauded and known for his outstanding ball-striking, and not necessarily his finesse around the greens (which arguably cost him from winning at least one — if not a couple — major championships). So far this season, he’s averaged about 30 putts per round, which is similar to his stats from 2016.
Westwood’s performance on Saturday appeared like he was channeling the spirit of the late Seve Ballesteros, celebrated for his astounding ability to scramble and find a way to save par from the most impossible corners of a golf course. In fact, Foster, who caddied for Seve, even made that comparison.
“Billy says he hasn’t seen an exhibition of short game and scrambling and putting since he caddied for Seve 25 years ago,” said Westwood. “In a way, it was nice to watch. Ideally, I’d like to play better than that tee to green tomorrow to give myself a chance. I hit it good on the range beforehand and then I got on the golf course and I didn’t seem to have it. I don’t know if the wind upset my rhythm.”
With each par salvaged, the pair couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. Who was this player and what had he done to Lee Westwood?
“It felt odd,” said Westy. “Odd and nice, in a way. I’ve gone through the frustrated, puzzled and semi-angry stage, and then the comical, laughing at myself, wondering what was coming next, and who this player was — chipping and putting every hole. It was ridiculous.”
Playing in tough conditions with the wind blowing and rock-hard firm greens, Westwood got off to a shaky start. He couldn’t hit a green for the life of him, but he kept things under control with his scrambling. Though he made the turn at three-over, the carnage easily could’ve been much worse considering he didn’t hit a single green in regulation and scrambled several times just to save bogey. At the end of third round, Westwood only hit one green in regulation, yet managed to chip and putt his way back to level par and remain in contention at five-under for the tournament and a share of third place.
“It would have been an 80 if it wasn’t for my shortgame,” Westwood said. “So it was nice to finish with level par. The way I hit it, it never deserved to be anything like that. But the older you get, the more you learn to grind out days like this. I knew it was going to be a tough-scoring the wind, and only to be three-over coming down 16 was actually a pretty good effort.”
Westwood, 44, is playing in his 24th consecutive BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, which is an amazing feat as it is, and while he’s often been in contention — this marks the fourth time in seven years he’s been in third place or better heading into the final round — the title at the European Tour’s flagship event has eluded him.
“It was one of the toughest days I’ve seen out here,” said Westwood. “I always think Wentworth plays really tricky when it’s really firm. Firm and windy is a bad combination for scoring on this golf course. The greens are exceptionally firm this year being new and with sub-air underneath. You have to be more precise…It’s how a big championship golf course should play.”
The Englishman has been the runner-up twice at Wentworth, and while the title isn’t exactly a major championship, winning this event would certainly further cement his legacy as one of Europe’s most accomplished golfers.
Westwood trails 54-hole leader Australian Andrew Dodt by three strokes. Which is nothing. As we’ve seen this week, it’s not difficult for a small mistake to amount to big numbers. Dodt has won on the European Tour twice, with both victories secured at events in Asia. He certainly has his work cut out for him with a pack of big names chasing him.
“There will be a few nerves, a lot of nerves there but I’ve just got to try to do what I’ve been doing the last three days and if I can do that, I can give myself a chance,” said Dodt.
Branden Grace is in solo second at seven-under.
“It was tough, man, I tell you, you just kind of are trying for pars,” said Grace, 29. “I managed to make a few birdies but there was a couple of bogeys that crept in. When I got around the corner it was good – missed a few but I made a few nice ones there as well – it’s just such a grind out there.”
Francesco Molinari joins Westwood for a share of third at five-under, and then Henrik Stenson, Shane Lowry and Hideto Tanihara are all at four-under.
Westwood will be leaning on his experience as he definitely has been in similar positions at this tournament probably more times than any other active player.
“I don’t think experience can ever be a negative,” he said. “I’ve been in contention a lot around this golf course, so I can use that. I just need to hit it better tee to green.”
Well, another round with 23 putts might also be enough to get the job done — he just might need to hit maybe five greens instead of one or two.