Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker in the top match (Getty Images)
Westwood beaten but unbowed
The United States quickly turned The 2010 Ryder Cup on its head by winning the top match to set up a tense finale.
By Paul Symes, europeantour.com
When Europe’s Captain Colin Montgomerie revealed the order for his final day Singles session, not a single soul would have been surprised to see Lee Westwood at the top of his list.
Westwood’s name had been pencilled in since the opening session, when he betrayed few signs of rust despite a seven-week absence from the fairways; and was re-written in indelible ink yesterday when, in tandem with his fellow Englishman Luke Donald, he consigned Tiger Woods – the only man now above him in the Official Golf World Ranking – to his heaviest Ryder Cup defeat.
Montgomerie was effectively asking Westwood to perform the role he had undertaken as a player himself at The K Club in 2006, when his battling victory over David Toms set the tone for Europe’s victory.
Four years on, Westwood re-opposed Steve Striker, Woods’ partner in that 6&5 mauling. Celtic Manor was bathed in glorious sunshine. Perhaps the man upstairs is a golf fan after all.
Any fears that the atmosphere would be subdued due to a Monday finish proved totally unfounded, as Westwood’s walk to the first tee was met with tumultuous applause.
Predictably, Europe’s talisman took the reception in his stride, booming a drive down the first fairway with the ease of a master of his craft.
On the resumption of play yesterday afternoon Westwood sunk a putt from all of 35 feet on the tenth green, and having found the heart of the green with his approach, he almost did the same on the first.
On the second hole, Westwood – perhaps distracted by the chatter of a TV cameraman – pulled his drive into a fairway bunker.
After his recovery from the sand came up short, Westwood proved that his short game – often his Achilles heel in the past, but now one of his greatest strengths – was in fine fettle with a stone dead chip to halve the hole in four.
Stricker got his nose ahead on the par three third, after an unforced error by Westwood who, after missing the green, left his first chip short and over-compensated with his second.
He had plenty of time to dwell on his error standing on the fourth tee, as play was temporarily held up until the morning mist, which had descended on the Usk Valley, had cleared.
Perhaps inspired by the roars which greeted his team-mate and close friend Rory McIlroy’s birdie on the second hole, Westwood drilled his drive down the left of the fairway, punched a seven iron to seven feet and calmly rolled in a perfectly-weighted birdie putt.
The response, as befitting the second best golfer in the world, had been immediate and emphatic.
Westwood’s metronome swing swung into action again on the fifth. Having found yet another fairway off the tee – there can be very few better drivers in word golf – he found yet another green with his approach. Stricker missed his birdie attempt, whereas Westwood – with customary ease and an air of inevitability – made no mistake from four feet.
In the blink of an eye, America’s advantage had evaporated. Stricker was now in the red and feeling blue.
Another missile on the sixth, which obeyed Westwood’s wife Laurae’s orders to stop short of the bunker, was followed by an iron shot which was every bit as glorious as the morning sunshine.
Unfortunately his putting stroke – itself normally a thing of beauty – for once let him down, and the hole was halved in par.
It was a putt Westwood would expect to hole nine times out of ten, and there was another let-off for Stricker at the par three seventh, where Westwood spurned a birdie chance from eight feet.
The nagging suspicion grew that the Englishman might be forced to pay the penalty for his failure to capitalise fully on some glorious shotmaking.
For despite only being only one down, Stricker – after a fairly conservative approach in the early stages – was clinging on at this point. But slowly the American, arguably the best putter at Corey Pavin’s disposal, started warming up and finding his rhythm.
In contrast Westwood, perhaps feeling the strain of having to play four days in a row for the first time in almost two months, began making some uncharacteristic errors.
A bogey on the 12th was followed by a watery double on the 13th, and suddenly the pendulum had swung back towards the American.
It seems the kilt-wearing quartet carrying a cupboard cut-out of Montgomerie holding The Ryder Cup might have gotten a little ahead of themselves.
The galleries did their best to rouse their hero’s flagging spirits, with a Mexican wave bringing a smile to Westwood’s face which was as wide as the River Trent in his native Nottingham.
But eventually the Worksop Wonder bowed to the inevitable, as Stricker drove the final nail into his coffin with a brilliant birdie at the 15th, before parring the next two holes to record a 2&1 victory.
It was Westwood’s first defeat of the 2010 Ryder Cup, but he had still more than played his part.