Friday, June 17, 2016

At 43, Lee Westwood contending for a first major title

OAKMONT, Pa. -- The best player to have never won a major is in contention to win his first here at the U.S. Open.

I'm not talking about Dustin Johnson. I'm talking about Lee Westwood.

The 43-year-old came back on Friday to an Oakmont that had been drenched on the day prior and overnight by more than an inch and a half of rain, polishing off a 3-under 67 by playing his final four holes of the round in 2 under par.

The Englishman has rejuvenated his career in 2016, starting with a great week in April at the Masters, which ended with his as co-runner-up to eventual winner Danny Willett.

"I sort of picked up where I left off at the Masters and the last three weeks I've played," he said Friday.

It's been a good stretch for Westwood. He finished tied for 10th in nasty conditions at the Irish Open. He was T-15 at the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour's flagship event. Then he was tied for eighth in blustery weather in Sweden at the Nordea Masters.

Notice there wasn't a single start on the PGA Tour in that four-event run.

That's because Westwood has committed himself to playing only on the European Tour in 2016, a decision he made after he got divorced from his wife, Laurae, in 2015. Westwood moved from Florida, his prior U.S. base, to England so that he could be closer to his children, Sam and Poppy, who moved back to Scotland with their mother. Westwood wanted to be near his children.

Not only was the move back home an opportunity to live closer to his children, but it was also a chance to regain his confidence. When he moved to the United States in 2012, he was in the top five in the world. At the end of 2015, he had dropped to 50th.

"I think it’s fair to say that while living in the States my career didn’t move in the direction I wanted it to move, but obviously that’s not the reason why I am doing this," Westwood told the Daily Mail in October 2015. "But it’s nice to be back. There are a few events over here I’ve missed not playing in, and I’ve dropped a lot in the world rankings, so I need to address that."

He has. The runner-up at the Masters went a long way in helping his ranking, which, heading into the U.S. Open, was 30th. That's still a long climb to the top for a man who has spent 22 weeks atop the summit of the Official World Golf Ranking. At 43, that's not likely to happen again, but Westwood has showed he still has the game to win a major.

Westwood enjoyed his best stretch in the majors between the 2009 U.S. Open and the 2010 Open Championship, where he finished tied for third twice in the final two majors of '09 and second in the 2010 Masters and Open Championship. Since then, he's posted eight major top-10 finishes, including the runner-up at Augusta National in April. However, that Masters effort came on the heels of a seven-major stretch in which he broke the top 40 just once.

Lee Westwood isn't Dustin Johnson. He doesn't have the raw power and talent that could back into a major. Unforunately, their short games are similarly bad. But Westwood remains a world-class ballstriker, and that gives him a chance on an Oakmont course that really isn't that long. If he can play classic U.S. Open fairways-and-greens golf, he'll have a good opportunity to win on Sunday or Monday, whenever they finish this thing.

If Westwood were to win his first -- and maybe only -- major at the U.S. Open, it might come as a surprise to some. After all, Westwood has enjoyed his closest major calls at the Masters. But, given all that has happened in his life since moving to the United States and having only won twice in this country, taking the national championship would be a bittersweet capstone on a remarkable career.

"I think I've had my chances at the Open," he said, "but I think, if you did look at my game, I suppose the U.S. Open should suit me more than others."

Ryan Ballengee is a Yahoo Sports contributor. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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