By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- He's finished third or better in six of the last 13 major championships so he has to be doing something right. For whatever reason, though, Lee Westwood simply hasn't been able to seal the deal.
Most recently, he played in the penultimate group at Congressional Country Club in June as Rory McIlroy powered to his eight-stroke U.S. Open victory. But the Englishman was watching on TV last month after missing the cut at the Open Championship, where Darren Clarke finally broke through and won his first major.
Certainly, he was happy for his friends and likely raised a pint or two in their honor. Those wins, though, prompted some soul-searching for Westwood. So the most recent former world No. 1, a position Westwood has held, twice, for a total of 22 weeks, pondered where he could get better.
"What works for one doesn't work for another," Westwood explained. "You can't really compare. I just looked at what I do, and you know, I've ticked pretty much every other box, and it's got me obviously to a very high level. ... But putting would be top of the priority list with regard to room for improvement."
So Westwood decided to enlist the aid of short game guru Dave Stockton, the two-time PGA champion who started working with the resilient McIlroy after he squandered a four-shot lead in the final round of this year's Masters. And lo-and-behold, the man who had never seen a sports psychologist also decided to consult Bob Rotella, who was Clarke's long-time brain doctor.
"He's got all the letters after his name, so I figured he was the best," Westwood said with a big grin.
Westwood was something of an anomoly in the modern game. Sports psychologists are commonplace among athletes of all sports -- in fact, this year one cable network even debuted an hour-long drama about one who works with members of a football team. But the Englishman had never sought the aid of a mental coach before last month.
Rotella's advice to Westwood was relatively simple. He's told his newest client to take a more light-hearted approach to the game -- particularly when it comes to the major championships. He wants Westwood, who has won twice on the PGA TOUR and 21 times in Europe, to just relax and enjoy the challenge rather than obsess over the fine points of his already proficient game.
"I'm just playing like my son, (who) stood over a 10-foot putt on the last green of the Par 3 at the Masters and rolled it in," Westwood said. "He wasn't thinking about whether it was square or taking it far back enough. That's just how kids do and that's the mentality I'm trying to get back into with my golf. Just kind of free-wheeling.
"I've done all the hard work now. Done it for 20 years. It's time to just relax and let it flow."
If his press conference Tuesday was any indication, Westwood has taken Rotella's advice to heart. The world No. 2 smiled easily, laughed heartily and spouted one-liners like he was Bob Hope reincarnated.
The frivolity started early when Kelly Elbin, the PGA of America official who was moderating the interview, mentioned that Westwood had tied for 44th in 2001, the last time the PGA Championship was played at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
"I made the cut?" the visibly surprised Westwood asked. "You sure?" Elbin said yes but Westwood wasn't satisfied until he brought out the media guide and showed him the final results. Thus educated and Elbin vindicated, Westwood didn't miss a beat, turning quickly to the microphone.
"I played nicely in 2001 and shot a couple of 68s, really loved the course and happy to be back," the Brit deadpanned. "Good memories."
Westwood went on to discuss his fitness regime which has intensified of late. He's now hitting the gym five times a week in what he calls his "power phase" and twice last week recorded personal bests in the deadlift, the last of which was 354 pounds. "A Chubby and a quarter," Westwood said, referring to his somewhat portly manager, Chubby Chandler, sitting in the next-to-last row.
"If I was squatting it, I would be entering the Olympics next year in London, I think."
Not only has the work in the weight room helped Westwood get stronger, he's lost nine pounds over the last three weeks, which could be a plus in the humid conditions this week where the heat index is expected to hit triple digits. "I've just cut out all the stuff that tastes nice, unfortunately," Westwood said with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
Kidding aside, though, Westwood enters the 93rd PGA Championship prime among the favorites and as arguably the best player never to have won a major. His best shot probably came at last year's Masters where he held the second- and third-round leads. Or, maybe at the 2008 U.S. Open where he had a long birdie putt on the 72nd hole to join Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate in the playoff.
Westwood was characteristically cagey when someone asked him if he took the proverbial best-player-never reference as a compliment. And for the record, he did.
"It's good to be the best at something I suppose," Westwood said.
But he'd rather be a major champion, and that's the focus this week.