British Open: Westwood, still without a major, reaches unwanted milestone

The 48-year-old, who will be playing his 88th major championship, has been in the top 10 on 19 occasions and has nine top-three finishes.

England's Lee Westwood plays his tee shot from the 1st tee during a practice round for the British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's golf course.   -  AP

The unwanted milestone Lee Westwood has been creeping towards is finally here.

The British Open at Royal St. George’s will be Westwood’s 88th major championship, and no other player has competed in that many without winning one.

“That’s nice, that record,” he said Wednesday. “It shows I’ve been a good player for a long, long time.”

So, it was put to Westwood, a former top-ranked player, a 27-time winner across the European and PGA Tours, and the reigning three-time European No. 1: How does it feel to be described as the best player never to win a major?

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“Another accolade,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way. “Yeah, I love it.”

Glib? Maybe. Sarcastic? For sure. He’s long mastered that.

Yet there might be a hint of truth behind it all, highlighting the mental toughness and thick skin the 48-year-old Englishman has had to develop over the years after so many heartaches on golf’s biggest stage.

After all, he has been in the top 10 on 19 occasions in majors and, more pertinently, has nine top-three finishes — eight of them coming in a five-year period (2008-13) during which he became world No. 1.

Yet still Westwood comes back for more. And, make no mistake, he’s still in the conversation for the title, even approaching 50.

“I think when you get to our age,” he said, “we maybe don’t treat it as seriously as we once did, and it’s easy to play golf when you’re a little bit more flippant about it and see it for what it is — getting a small ball in a small hole.”

That almost carefree approach is serving him well. In December, he finished the 2020 season as the Race to Dubai champion — formerly known as the winner of the Order of Merit — for the third time in his career and 20 years after the first. His victory in Abu Dhabi last year ensured he is the only active golfer to win titles in four separate decades.

More recently, there were the back-to-back runner-up finishes — both by one stroke — at Bay Hill and The Players Championship on the PGA Tour in March.

A self-declared “working-class lad,” Westwood puts his ability to stay relevant at the top end of golf — he is ranked No. 29 — on staying fit, having other interests in his life like horse racing and skiing, and a better perspective. He also got married last month for a second time, to Helen Storey, who often works as his caddie and is on the bag this week.

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He said the thing that lets him down is an inability to maintain intensity week in, week out. But he knows that just comes with age.

“When the intensity is there and my game is there, mentally I think I’m stronger,” Westwood said. “Probably putt a little bit better now than I did 10 years ago. Short game is definitely better. Tee to green, probably not quite as good, but good enough.”

Westwood has missed the cut in his two appearances at Royal St. George’s but that doesn’t bother him. After all, he did the same at Muirfield in 2002, only to finish third there in 2013 when he went into the final round in the lead.

Just one of those many near-misses, which have led to him overtaking Jay Haas as the man to have played in the most majors without a win.

Provided, of course, Westwood doesn’t win this week.

“It’s a lottery,” he said. “Links golf is even more of a lottery than your week-in, week-out golf, where the conditions are even more predictable. You can’t kind of overanalyze it, I don’t think.”

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