Westwood set for stellar season after putting his game in great shape, says Chubby
Lee Westwood is about to embark on the finest year of his illustrious career. Yes, even better than 2000, when he won six times in Europe and once in South Africa. That's the opinion of the man who might know him best, his long-time manager, Chubby Chandler.
'I'd be absolutely amazed if this doesn't turn out to be his best season yet,' he said.
Managers and players usually shy away from making such bold statements but confidence is oozing from the Westwood camp because of one added ingredient.
Driving force: Lee Westwood has been tipped for his best year ever
Whisper it softly, because we all know what putting is like. But it does seem like the best golfer by miles from tee to green over the past three years has finally worked out how to hole his share of 15ft putts.
Putting works like writer's block. You try everything and nothing works and then suddenly a fresh approach produces a eureka moment.
Abu Dhabi Championship preiview
Check out Sportsmail's Golf Blog for the full lowdown ahead of the mouth-watering battle in the desert…
Westwood's came when he started working with the noted putting coach Phil Kenyon at the back end of last year. He knew straight away that he was on to something. And then the putts started to drop.
Suddenly, he went from being in contention every week because of the quality of his long game to lapping the field thanks to his renewed confidence on the greens.
At the Sun City Challenge last month he thought he played the best golf of his life, only to revise his opinion a fortnight later in Thailand, an event he led by the astonishing margin of 14 shots at the halfway stage.
Of course, it's one thing to win a couple of end-of-year events when hardly anyone is looking; quite another to carry it into this season and tournaments sprinkled with stardust like the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, which begins on Thursday.
Smiles better: Westwood says his putting has been transformed
But Chandler has no doubts and Westwood, to judge from his supremely confident demeanour, doesn't either.
Not that he wanted to delve too deeply into his putting. Westwood politely answered a couple of questions and then promptly said he wouldn't talk about it anymore.
A wise man. Unless you're Luke Donald, who rarely struggles on the greens, it's best not to talk too much about this decidedly black art.
'I would say the difference with Phil is that my practice is a lot more structured and based around drills to make sure I do the same thing over and over again. And, other than that, I am not saying any more,' he commented, smiling.
Westwood might be 39 in April but looks in the best shape of his career, both literally and metaphorically. Twice-daily sessions in the gym have taken away the extra pounds that hung around his frame before Christmas, while the nagging angst at the back of his mind that crippled his putting stroke is fast becoming a bad memory.
That's some threesome: Tiger Woods will play alongside Rory McIlroy and world No 1 Luke Donald for the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi Championship
Like everyone else here, Westwood was excited to get going in this star-laden first tournament. Who could have imagined a European Tour event featuring such a marquee group as Westwood, Sergio Garcia and the defending champion Martin Kaymer, and it still not being the one attracting the biggest crowd
It was trumped by the threesome featuring Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and the world No 1 Luke Donald.
Six years have now passed since McIlroy missed the cut as an amateur in the Dubai Desert Classic and spent the weekend watching Woods, his idol growing up. Here he practised on Wednesday with the icon and spent the early hours of this morning UK time playing his first round with Tiger in a regular tour event.
'Of course I was a little awestruck back in 2006, who wouldn't be' he said. 'He was doing things no-one thought possible, he was changing our game forever. But I played with him in a skins game in 2010 and in the first round of Tiger's tournament that year and so gradually I've felt less in awe.
Luke-ing good: Donald drives during practice for his first tournament of the year
'Now I've got to know him a little and feel comfortable around him. And you could see in practice he's ready to play well again. He's clearly fit again and hit some really good shots. Let's hope we can play together on a few Sundays this year and not just on Thursday and Friday.'
As for Donald, he remembers the day when he was completely in awe of Woods. It was the final round of the 2006 US PGA at Medinah, when he turned up in a red shirt and left with a red face after being contemptuously demolished by Tiger.
'I remember it well and I certainly feel a hugely different player to what I was back then. One with a lot more experience. I think every year you learn more about yourself as a golfer. You learn a little bit more about your swing.
'Obviously last year was a hugely important one for me in terms of dealing with pressure and being able to come out on top when it mattered.'
Keep tuning in. This year is going to be one of the great ones.