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Lee Westwood was flying high the last time he played the Open at Royal Birkdale. (Little/Getty Images)

His game back in shape, Westwood hopes to take major step at Birkdale

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After finishing third at the U.S. Open last month, Lee Westwood heads to Royal Birkdale next week feeling as good about his Open Championship chances as ever. The last time he was in this position was at the 1998 Open, coincidentally also at Birkdale.

LOCH LOMOND, Scotland (PA) -- Lee Westwood has been down this road before -- the one that leads to Royal Birkdale with all systems go and people wondering if this could be the week.

With no Tiger Woods and nobody remotely like him, hopes of a British winner of the Open Championship are higher than they have been for years.

And Westwood, because of his third-place finish at the U.S. Open last month and the consistency he seeks to continue at this week's Scottish Open, finds himself the man most likely. Just as he was at Birkdale 10 years ago.

"I was joint favorite with Tiger, I remember," he said. "The expectations from everybody else go up and I suppose they have this time after I played well at Torrey Pines. But it's not new to me now."

In 1998, Westwood went into the championship ranked eighth in the world. He had ended the previous year with wins in Japan and Australia, then in the week before the Masters captured his first PGA Tour title in New Orleans.

Augusta did not go as well as he hoped, but he was seventh in the U.S. Open and in Europe he quickly won not once, not twice, but three times -- the third of them by a commanding four shots at Loch Lomond the Saturday before the Open.

Come the week, though, he never got close. Two opening 71s left him only five off the pace, but he closed with two 78s and in terms of cheering on one of their own the crowd's undivided attention turned to amateur Justin Rose.

The 17-year-old's fourth-place finish defied belief given his youth, but even though Westwood had won his first Ryder Cup cap by then and had finished third on the Order of Merit he was still relatively inexperienced himself.

He was 25 and Birkdale was only the ninth major of his career. This time he has 42 under his belt and the 42nd was the best of the lot.

"Definitely, playing the majors you need a different mindset and approach," he added. "I've always been very aggressive from the start, but I played my way into the U.S. Open and found myself in with a chance. I'll try to take that focus and approach into the Open and hopefully it will work.

"I'm full of admiration for Tiger coming out and playing the majors well from the start. It's something that most of us have to learn," he explained. "Look at Phil Mickelson. It was a long time for him before he found the right way to approach them."

Westwood does wonder, though, if Woods is now regretting his decision to play at Torrey Pines, even though it brought him the most dramatic of his 14 major victories.

The world No. 1, of course, beat fellow American Rocco Mediate in a playoff despite stress fractures in his leg and his left knee in such a state that immediately afterward he went in for reconstructive anterior cruciate ligament surgery.

"Maybe he is thinking he made a mistake now -- he is missing the rest of the year," Westwood suggested. "If he had missed the U.S. Open and given it to the Open, maybe he would be playing the Open and the PGA (Championship).

"Hindsight is a fantastic thing, but the U.S. Open is his national open, so maybe for him -- you'd have to ask him -- it's the most important tournament of his year and that's why he played," he said. "He was obviously in a lot of pain. It's difficult to know what I would have done in the same situation, but I think I would have carried on if you've got a chance of winning a major.

"Tiger has a very intense desire to win and he is the best 'bad golf' player that's ever played," he said. "He can get it round when he's playing bad better than anybody else."

Regardless of Woods' health, it would have been a real feather in Westwood's cap if he had captured his first major going head-to-head with the American, and when he turned a one-stroke deficit into a one-stroke lead with nine to play he thought it was on.

Back in 1999, also when paired with Woods, the Englishman had moved into a share for the lead at the Masters with nine to play. He fell back to sixth and did not share with everybody afterward that the pressure made him feel physically sick entering Augusta's Amen Corner.

"I felt completely different this time," he stated. "I was much more comfortable, more mature and able to cope with it really.

"It showed in the golf -- I felt I was free-wheeling, in control. Maybe, though, I got ahead of myself. Not too much, but obviously it coincided with me making three bogeys," he added. "Looking back on it, I could have been a bit more focused."

Another lesson learned, then. But the bottom line is that Westwood keeps putting himself in position to win tournaments and that is normally the way you eventually win one. At the French Open two weeks ago, he was again challenging but could not quite complete the job.

"It was a big title that I wanted to win and I was frustrated," he said. "But I said to (wife) Laurae flying home, 'it could have been worse, I could have done that at the Open'."

He knows that that is the really big one.

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