Forty-six years, two months, and 23 days. There is a reason those numbers continue to resonate through the world of golf.
Nobody has won a major older than Jack Nicklaus was at the Masters in 1986. So Lee Westwood has been in extraordinary nick to speak of beating that record this week, and have the room take him seriously.
On Thursday, a perfect spring day, reality arrived, with klaxons. It was not so much that Westwood was the collateral damage of a course set up to tame younger, longer men. More that approaching 48, to still be considered a contender was almost feat enough.
Lee Westwood came in six over after his first round at Augusta, facing a mountain to climb
To actually pull that off, to be lurking near the top of the leaderboard on a day when Augusta was playing as fiendishly as on any Thursday in the last decade — perhaps that was just too much to ask. The pressure, the sudden expectations, the conditions, those 47 years, it all conspired against Westwood.
Nicklaus’s 1986 Masters was his 18th major; Westwood is older and still looking for his first. It would be a victory every bit as special as Tiger Woods’s comeback in 2019. But come on, get real.
That is what Augusta seemed to be whispering with its breezes as Westwood laboured around its beautiful borders looking ever more forlorn.
His son Sam was on his bag. He’s 19. That’s nearer the age at which a man might take on the Masters. Tyler Strafaci, the US Amateur champion, was part of Westwood’s group. He’s 22.
The 47-year-old is still chasing that elusive first Masters, but the dream looks to be fading
Not that Augusta greatly rewards callow youth either, and he finished eight over par. But time is on Strafaci’s side. Westwood knows it’s now or never.
Now, or he joins the ranks of the great European players who never quite got to plant their flag on the summit. Colin Montgomerie, defined by the Ryder Cup. Luke Donald, 56 weeks the world No 1. Westwood has been both — a fabulous matchplay asset, the best player in the world. But the major eludes.
Few are out of contention after 18 holes, but Westwood needs three incredible rounds. He also needs every one of the greatest golfers in the world to suffer a meltdown, of sorts. It probably isn’t going to happen.
Westwood is in many ways the Tottenham of golf. Just at the moment he looks strongest, the cracks appear and it all goes a bit, well, Westy.
Westwood was being touted as a challenger pre-tournament but he cracked on Thursday
Thursday was one such day. He was in rare form arriving in Georgia, kept at bay only by the new radical Bryson DeChambeau, a man whose thought processes are troubling an entire sport.
It allowed Westwood to be considered a Masters contender, for his supporters to indulge the fantasy that after so many near misses, history could be made.
Even the grouping spoke to that hope, Westwood beside reigning champion Dustin Johnson and his amateur equivalent, Strafaci. To be given the slot beside the Masters’ traditional marquee pairing — holder, champion amateur — confirmed Westwood’s status.
Maybe that didn’t help, either. Westwood has never been at his best in majors when properly in the mix. Many of his finest finishes have come after the crucial shakedown with the pressure off. Perhaps this year would be different; perhaps with age would come wisdom and nervelessness.
Westwood’s son and caddie Samuel (right) is closer the age of an Augusta front-runner now
Those bubbles of hope were burst on the third, one of the most approachable holes on the course, a 350-yard par four, charmingly called Flowering Peach.
Westwood took a four iron and went for accuracy and positioning. A trip to the trees later, and this was very much plan B. The second brought the sound of wood, too, and sent the ball further right.
By the time he marched to the par three fourth, Westwood was two over par. It was already the beginning of the end.
Nothing was working. Not the driver, not the putter, not the judgement of distance. That lovely old joke about the three weaknesses of England’s cricket team — batting, bowling and fielding — here was golf’s equivalent.
If it isn’t right on the tee, and it isn’t right on the green, then it probably won’t be right between them either. Particularly if you can’t always get it to stop when necessary.
Westwood has a nightmare on the third, Flowering Patch, ending up taking a trip into the trees
Not that Westwood was alone. For those seeking a limiter for DeChambeau and his imitators, these were the perfect conditions. No rain, a hard and fast surface. Try bombing your way around now, sunshine.
Just as a relatively benign coastal breeze can make a Scottish links adorably treacherous, so a baked Augusta is nobody’s idea of a treat. As the day wore on and gusts dried the course out further, so balls began to trickle into water, or speed away in vicious loops on the greens.
At the ninth, Westwood saw Strafaci strike a putt from north of the green, only to watch it roll off a bank back towards the hole — as intended — but carry on past, down the hill, off the front before settling in grass the length of a first cut, chipping distance away.
At least Westwood had the guide. He missed with the same putt with a slightly better line, eventually stopped by the wind. It showed how difficult these conditions were — 47 years or 22, it made no difference. A quarter of a century apart, but Augusta still thumbs its nose at the pair of them.
Johnson, perhaps as expected, was the best of it in Westwood’s group. He didn’t score off the charts but his numbers were in first-round contention.
Dustin Johnson was the man with the cool head in Westwood’s group as the Brit floundered
As steadily as it slipped away from Westwood, so Johnson brought it back after a first-hole bogey. It seems there is much to recommend in Johnson’s zen-like mindset. Certainly compared to what Westwood’s must have been like when he was similarly in his prime.
Westwood was scrambling not to become too distanced from the pack. It looked mentally draining but, with expectations lowered, his game improved.
He hit fairways again with 300-yard drives and got in birdie positions without always making them. He clawed one back at the 15th before missing the fairway then hitting a bogey at 17.
He didn’t look like his head was about to explode nor did he have the game of a man who was about to consign one of Nicklaus’s greatest achievements to history. He finished the round six over, and in danger of missing the cut.
On the 18th tee, the club fell from his hand to a cry of ‘Jesus Christ’.
Conclusion? Records are that for a reason. Nicklaus was 46 when he won his last major; but he was 22 when he won his first. It’s a small detail, but not insignificant.