Lee Westwood took a giant step towards winning his first major when he carded a one-under-par 70 on Saturday to edge into a two-stroke lead ahead of the final round of the Open Championship at Muirfield.
And if he’s able to be as relaxed as he was during a tough third round, his two closest pursuers – Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods – will have a devil of a job catching him.
“I’ll think about winning the Open Championship tonight at some stage, I’m sure,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that, picture yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard. When it comes to tee off around three-ish, I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today. I didn’t feel any pressure today and felt nice and calm out there and in control of what I was doing.”
It was that kind of clarity of thinking that saw him rebound from a bogey four at 16 – a setback which could have been much worse following the poorest tee-shot imaginable – with a stunning birdie at 17, just as Woods, who had rejoined him in the lead, made bogey to slip two back.
“That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day, probably, walk off there with a bogey,” he said. “It was probably one of the few bad shots I hit all day. I was trying to hit a hard fade in there and just pulled it, and it found the worst lie I've found all week.
“There were so many bad things that could have happened from there; if you would have said you can have a four, I would have taken it. Looking at the lie, it had gone down right down to the bottom in a bit of a hole. And there weren’t many options – well, not good options, anyway. I was pleased to make four.
“But that’s what's been missing, making those putts. And backing it up with a birdie at the next, those are the sorts of things you need to do,” he added.
Producing the goods under that kind of pressure eluded some of South Africa’s finest in the third round: Charl Schwartzel had the best chance at the halfway mark, but he slipped to a five-over 76, eight off the pace – and while chasing down that lead not beyond the realms of possibility, it’s a big task given Westwood’s equanimity.
And Ernie Els battled valiantly for his one-under 70, getting to five-under for the tournament. “If I’m within six, seven, you never know,” he said. “It happened last year. I’m not saying it’s going to happen every day, but anything can happen in the Open. Somebody can get hot, from where I am, and if the leaders don’t get hot, you’re in the ballgame. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Given the way Muirfield has played in the conditions this week, it’s quite likely that the leader won’t get hot. And over the last two rounds, the best score has been three-under.
Richard Sterne was one of those who made 68 in the third round. And that vaulted him from a share of 70th at hallway into a share of 19th with Els.
Further down the leaderboard were George Coetzee and Branden Grace, on nine-under after shooting 75 and 77 respectively, suggesting they will have to wait another year before getting to grips properly with playing in an Open Championship.
Westwood has got that sorted, as Woods noted: “He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead and we’re going to go out there and both compete.”
But this is a major, and Woods owns 14 already, while Westwood is trying to win his first. “I’m hoping it’s going to turn out differently because I haven’t won one yet and I’d like to win one,” said Westwood.
“But what can you do? You can only do what you think is right and put into practice tomorrow all the hard work you’ve done, try not to get in your own way mentally and just focus on the job at hand and believe you’re good enough.”
It’s beginning to look as if he is.