Lee Westwood did everything expected out of the No. 1 player in the world at the HSBC Champions.
In only his second stroke-play tournament in three months, and his first since replacing Tiger Woods atop the world ranking, Westwood went into the weekend just one shot behind Francesco Molinari. The Englishman didn’t make a single bogey over the final two rounds, matched the low round of the day on Saturday and Sunday, and wound up in the same spot he started.
“No negatives in a performance like that,” Westwood said. “I mean, 18 under par and nine shots clear of third is never too bad.”
It was a reflection of how well Molinari -- and Westwood -- played in the final World Golf Championship of the year.
Molinari also shot 67-67 on the weekend, including a key birdie on the 16th hole that gave him a cushion, and went on to win the HSBC Champions by one shot for his first victory in four years.
He finished at 19-under 269, earned $1.2 million and moved to No. 14 in the world ranking.
Molinari said it didn’t remind him of match play. The Italian has had enough of that for awhile after getting trounced by Woods in Ryder Cup singles a month ago. But being so far ahead of everyone else, Molinari and Westwood watched each other’s every move.
“I was trying to birdie every hole because both of us were playing really well, and we knew pars weren’t going to be good enough,” Molinari said.
For Westwood, it was a microcosm of his year -- consistently great with no trophy to show for it.
He rose to No. 1 in the world not by winning majors or winning multiple times, as PGA Champion Martin Kaymer and U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell have done. But that’s not what the world ranking is all about.
Westwood said as much on the eve of the final round, aware of some quibbling about the ranking, most of that coming from America.
“A lot of people get confused,” he said. “A lot of people get confused about major championships and who is the most consistent player in the world. I know that I haven’t won a major championship. I’m very well aware of that. It’s not a complicated system. It’s a good system, and it’s a fair system. And you don’t hear the players complaining about it. So it must be right.”
Westwood only has two victories in the last calendar year -- the Dubai World Championship last November, and the St. Jude Classic on the PGA Tour this summer, when Robert Garrigus made triple bogey on the last hole, and Westwood won a three-man playoff.
Kaymer has won four times. McDowell has won three times.
Westwood, however, always seems to be there with a chance, as he was at Sheshan International. His runner-up finish was the fourth time this year he wound up in second place. The others were at the Masters, the British Open and the Dubai Desert Classic. He also was third at Qatar and fourth at The Players Championship.
He failed to close out 54-hole leads at the Masters and The Players Championship, although he was only one shot clear of Phil Mickelson at Augusta National, and one shot ahead of Robert Allenby at the TPC Sawgrass.
He did little wrong at the HSBC Champions -- Molinari was simply one shot better.
The Italian is renowned for his accuracy off the tee and from the fairway, while putting generally has been regarded as a weakness. But this week, Molinari holed more than his share of putts, and there wasn’t much Westwood could do.
It was reminiscent of the Dubai Desert Classic in 2001 when Tiger Woods, undisputed at No. 1 in the world, went all four rounds against Thomas Bjorn only to hit into the water on the final hole. Bjorn finished that tournament at 22-under 266.
Molinari became the first wire-to-wire winner of the HSBC Champions, opening with a tournament-best 65 and matching the low round on Saturday and Sunday, despite playing from the last group.
“I’m obviously amazed the way I played, and to have the No. 1 player in the world trailing you by one shot, it’s not easy,” Molinari said. “I just played really well, and behaved really well on the golf course. So it just feels fantastic now. I was under pressure all the time, pretty much from the first round.”
Westwood headed home to London to rest his right leg, an injury that has sidelined him for most of the summer. He next plays the Dubai World Championship at the end of the month, unsure whether he will remain No. 1 by then.