Published July 19, 2013
GULLANE, Scotland – Lee Westwood was addressing a birdie putt on the ninth green when a child starting crying in the packed stand just behind him.
It seemed as if everyone on and around the putting surface looked up, or squirmed.
The Englishman didn't even flinch, staying in his zone as he rolled in the fifth birdie of his second round en route to briefly taking a share of the lead at the British Open on Friday.
Westwood's woes on the greens have been the main reason why he remains without a major at the age of 40. But moving to the United States this year — and hiring 1991 Open champion Ian Baker-Finch as his putting coach — has helped.
His putting on Muirfield's bone-dry greens was sharp as he shot a 3-under 68 that left him at 2 under and right in contention at yet another major championship. He was tied for second, a stroke behind Miguel Angel Jimenez.
"I got a couple of tips from Ian on getting tension out of my arms and having a bit more control," Westwood said. "And I'm getting it on line nicely, and I've gauged the pace of the greens as well."
While the front nine was about picking up shots to close the gap on overnight leader Zach Johnson, the back nine was simply about holding on as the holes became longer and tougher and the fairways and greens turned even crustier.
Charl Schwartzel, Westwood's playing partner, said the fairways were like "runways" — his drive on No. 15 sped into a bunker at 380 yards — and said playing conditions were "not exactly fair."
After joining Johnson at 5 under with a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 12, taking him to 6 under for the round, Westwood made bogeys at the next two holes and then another at No. 18.
But he made clutch putts at Nos. 14, 16 and 17 — where Tiger Woods' girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, was watching — that kept the momentum going.
In a sight rarely seen in sport around here, Scots were roaring on an Englishman.
"I thought he putted beautifully, the putts that he needed to make he has made," Schwartzel said. "And then that's been the difference with him this week so far.
"You can see the way he's walking and the way he's playing. Definitely a dangerman."
That's nothing new for Westwood at majors — but he just can't finish them off.
He three-putted his 72nd hole at Turnberry in 2009 to miss out on a playoff with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink by a stroke.
"I felt really sick about it for a couple of days," Westwood recalled of the most distressing of his eight top-five finishes in majors.
Westwood has long been one of the best players in the world from tee to green, but his short game has let him down. Since his move to the U.S., his putting and chipping have improved to such an extent that he is ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in scrambling from less than 30 yards.
And his sessions with Baker-Finch, an Australian and close neighbor in Palm Beach Gardens who won the Open at Birkdale, have led to a marked change to his mentality on the greens.
Westwood couldn't be happier with his overall game right now.
"I'm hitting the ball well. And controlling the flight most of the time pretty well, and getting up and down when I needed to," he said. "I've always enjoyed playing Muirfield and felt like it suited my game."
Westwood is looking to become the first Englishman to win his national Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.
If he does so on Sunday, he will have an Aussie to thank.