AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Lee Westwood made his Masters debut in 1997 and went out for a Saturday night shopping excursion when he realized that he would play the final round the following day with Jack Nicklaus.
He bought a photo — the iconic image of Nicklaus raising his putter as he watched his birdie putt drop to give him a lead that he’d never relinquish on the 71st hole of the 1986 tournament — and asked the six-time Masters winner to sign it after their round, while Tiger Woods was running away from the field on the way to his first Masters win.
Nicklaus obliged. “Lee, enjoyed our round, best wishes, Jack Nicklaus,” he wrote. Westwood still has the picture and still looks to it every now and then for inspiration.
Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at 46, with his son as his caddie. Westwood sees the parallels in his plan for this week — when he’ll try to win the Masters at 47 with his son as his caddie. He has finished second in major championships three times, two of those coming at Augusta National, but the former world No. 1 player is still seeking that first major triumph.
“I maybe don’t play as well, as often, anymore,” Westwood said. “But when I do play well, I tend to contend.”
He has proven that this year.
Back-to-back second-place finishes last month at The Players Championship and Bay Hill showed everyone — himself, probably most importantly — that he can still contend. He has been thinking about the Masters for weeks, came in for a couple of practice rounds between Bay Hill and The Honda Classic and believes he’s done all he can to prepare.
“He’s munching it pretty good out there,” said 1991 Masters winner Ian Woosnam, who played a practice round with Westwood earlier this week. “He seems to be really in control of his game. Just said to him, ‘Just be patient.’”
Patience is a virtue that comes with waiting forever for that major breakthrough.
Westwood has won 44 times around the world, has been part of seven Ryder Cup wins and likely will play in that event again later this year and has won nearly $70 million in prize money. But he is 0 for 84 in majors, landing him among those dubbed the “best player to never win a major.”
Yet there are reasons for optimism: the two second-places last month, the fact that he has made the cut in his last 13 appearances at the Masters and that he’s held the lead at Augusta National in past appearances after the first, second and third rounds.
“As for expectations, I don’t really have any, but I don’t really have any at any tournaments I turn up to anymore,” Westwood said. “I just put the preparation in, hit it off the first tee and try and find it and hit it on the green, and hopefully hit it on the green and have a birdie chance and make a few of those. After that, it’s in the lap of the gods, really.”
He also clearly is in a happy place.
Sam, his son who will be on the bag this week, splits the caddie duties with Helen Storey, Westwood’s fiancée. She’ll be back to work the PGA Championship and British Open later this year, but the first major went to Sam — who chipped in on the final hole at Augusta to shoot 82 and win $20 from his father during a couple of practice rounds last month. Westwood has gotten warm receptions from fans all year and has embraced their cheers; the patrons at Augusta National surely will welcome him back this week as well.
Playing well also helps.
“It just is validation, really, that I’m still good enough at my age to be out here and contending,” Westwood said.
And if history repeats itself — a man closer to 50 than 40, with his son as his caddie — finds a way to win the Masters, Westwood certainly won’t mind.
“Jack has always been an inspiration the way he played the game, especially his record around here,” Westwood said. “You can’t help being inspired. There’s a few similarities there with age. It would be great to break his record.”
It also would be picture-perfect.
More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports