By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Lee Westwood’s latest bid to secure an elusive major championship got off to a blistering start on Saturday, but he heads into Sunday’s final round needing a major turnaround to have any hope of lifting the Claret Jug.
The 46-year-old Westwood has had 18 top-10 finishes in major championships and in half of them he has been inside the top three — but he has yet to get over the finish line in first place.
On Saturday, Westwood looked determined but relaxed as he took on the Dunluce links, striking the ball superbly, birdieing the second, third and fourth holes and briefly taking the outright lead.
While his playing partner Tommy Fleetwood was also in excellent form and Shane Lowry was outstanding as he surged ahead, Westwood suffered a setback on the 10th.
His drive flew right and lodged in a bush in the rough. When the ball position was inspected, it was found plugged in the grass underneath the bush, prompting a conversation with the rules official.
The Englishman was offered a potential lifeline when the official asked him whether, if the ball was not plugged, he would have been able to play it from that position.
Yet rather than engage in a debate aimed at avoiding a penalty stroke, Westwood simply took his medicine and accepted he would not have been able to play even a non-plugged ball.
“I just accepted the penalty and took it back and dropped it. If it hadn’t been plugged and been in the same place I couldn’t have, in my own conscience, played a shot. I just took a penalty,” he said.
Westwood said that any other line of argument would have been “against the spirit of the game”.
“I’m not interested in gaining an advantage in a situation like that.
“I actually said to the rules official, ‘There’s no relief for embedded balls in The Open, is there?’ She said, ‘Actually we’ve changed the rules’.
“So I was just going to go and drop it anyway, but she said, ‘Hang on’, and they brought another rules official and he explained the rule and I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t have been able to hit it really’.
“I could have faked it and said, I hit left-handed over me shoulder. You just let your conscience be your guide in situations like that.”
His approach was recognised by Ireland’s Padraig Harrington who tweeted: “Very sporting of Lee Westwood not to attempt to take a free drop on 10. With all recent rules decisions it reminds us of the honour at the heart of the game.”
A further bogey on the 15th left Westwood to card a one-under 70. That put him a full eight strokes behind Lowry but the Englishman was not giving up just yet.
“The weather is predicted to be bad, isn’t it? So Shane’s in the lead. He’s got a big lead. But no lead is big enough when the weather gets bad on a links course,” said Westwood.
“He’s going to have an awful lot of pressure on him from the crowd. He’ll be nervous. It’ll be a tough, long day for him. Last day is always long, but it’s going to be a hundred times worse for him.”
As for Westwood?
“Still in there with a chance,” he said.
“You can still shoot a low score around this golf course. It’s such a good design that even in a really strong wind if you hit good shots and you’ve got control of the golf ball you can still make birdies and hit proper shots out there and get rewarded.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)