Lee Westwood’s career Indian Summer saunters on at Sawgrass

The 47-year-old Englishman seems impervious to age and opened his account at THE PLAYERS Championship with a sparkling round of 3-under-par 69.

Experts have long been aware that there comes a point in the process of skill acquisition when the best way forward is to take two steps back.

It's a tipping point, when future success depends on making everything simple.

It's a process Lee Westwood might recognise.

The Englishman opened his account at the 2021 PLAYERS Championship with a superb round of 69, a wonderful follow-up to his second-placed finish in last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.

At the end of Thursday's play he was tied sixth on the leaderboard and could look forward to another week contending for the title.

The last fortnight has been another reminder of Westwood's skills, but also the fun he seems to be having in continuing to perform at the top of the game as he closes in on his 48th birthday.

He's 33/1 with Paddy Power to lift the trophy on Sunday.

Let's take a closer look at his superb results over the last 15 months and his record at TPC Sawgrass to see if that's a fair price.

Indian Summer

A couple of years ago Westwood split with his long-term caddie Billy Foster and the reasoning behind the change would appear to inform pretty much everything that has happened since.

Westwood wanted to take responsibility over yardage and shot selection, not as a criticism of his old friend and bagman, but to freshen - or simplify - the process.

Foster and Westwood were a strong team.
Foster and Westwood were a strong team.

"Billy is very knowledgeable and wants to use all that knowledge to help somebody," Westwood explained. "I didn't want that and I could see he wasn't happy.

"You can't carry on doing the same thing and expect something different out of him. It was an amicable split."

With girlfriend Helen Storey, and sometimes son Sam, on the bag, Westwood took full charge and it worked.

Less was more.

The last 15 months

In January 2020 Westwood won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, not only one of the most lucrative tournaments on the European Tour schedule, but also boasting one of its strongest fields.

It was a 44th victory worldwide and he trundled on through the summer, accumulating six top 20s on the bounce during the UK Swing.

Moreover, in finishing second at the DP World Tour Championship, he ended the season with another win in the Race to Dubai, his third seasonal ranking triumph.

Last week he very nearly added victory at Bay Hill in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

He was stellar through all four rounds - his always-magnificent long game not stymied by a sometimes-fragile short game.

Only a pumped-up Bryson DeChambeau denied him the title.

He holed a nasty par putt on the final green, forcing DeChambeau to do the same, and the cheeky grin Westwood gave Storey when it went in not only went viral, it also epitomised his on-course demeanour these last few years: he's loving life on the golf course.

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"I haven't lost any of my enthusiasm to go and work in the gym," he said. "My nerves are still in tact. I still get into contention and enjoy it rather than back off."

TPC Sawgrass record

This week marks Westwood's 16th visit to the tournament - he may have played more but for an odd spat his previous management company ISM had with the PGA Tour - and he's had success.

In those 15 previous starts he's landed five top 10s and he genuinely knows what it is like to consider the prospect of winning it.

He shared the halfway lead in 2005, was the solo 36- and 54-hole leader in 2010, and was in-contention through all four rounds in both 2013 and 2014.

The first round 69

A few players will need to complete their circuit on Friday morning, but as of Thursday night no-one had hit more greens in regulation than Westwood.

Then again, he'd only missed one.

It's a nice trick.

It's also worth noting because when his GIR numbers are good he contends at Sawgrass.

"Felt like I had a lot of control," he said afterwards.

He also added: "Even if you're on some of these greens, it's not easy to still make par. So you had to be conservative in places, smart, play smart golf, strategic golf, and that's what I tried to do and pick up the odd shot. Obviously I'm putting nicely, too."

Can he win?

The case for his chances would argue that he's playing great golf and his head is in a fantastic place - it's a very neat combination.

It's also true that the near-miss last week does not appear to have fazed him and golfers can be dangerous when fresh from going close.

The case against would argue that he still has just the two wins in America (in 1998 and 2010). He would clearly have had more if he had based himself there and played a full schedule, but it's a gap on the CV that cannot be ignored.

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He will likely hope that conditions are tough because he's only twice gone sub-70 at the weekend in this tournament - both on his debut. Since then he averages 73.78 in rounds three and four.

Westwood is 33/1 with Paddy Power.

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