Lee Westwood may turn 47 in a few months, but the former world No 1 still enjoys his competitive golf with a youthful exuberance.
By his admission, he doesn’t practice anywhere near as much, probably because 24 victories on the European Tour alone allows that.
With that in mind, Westwood came into Abu Dhabi this week on the back of a winter break in which his golf was confined to three days with son, Sam, in Florida and about three hours on the range back in the UK at Close House, in Newcastle.
So the Englishman arrived at the opening Rolex Series event of the year with little expectation. It just so happens, that he left Saturday holding the 54-hole lead.
A third-round 65 highlighted by an eagle on the 8th lifted Westwood to 14-under par for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA, one ahead of Bernd Wiesberger and Francesco Laporta. Matt Fitzpatrick was a shot further back, while Sergio Garcia and Kurt Kitayama sat close by, on 11-under.
For Westwood, heading such a stellar field at the beginning of his season represented a real source of pride.
“It’s great,” he said. “If you’d asked the 19-year-old at the school in Montpellier what he’d be doing at the start of 2020, I doubt he’d have given the answer that he’d leading a Rolex Series event. It’s just fun, isn’t it? I’m playing the game that I love every day.”
Shots like his second on the 8th would help deepen the devotion. The par 5 is not usually reachable in two for Westwood, but such was his whacked drive and the wind direction, that he decided to take on the green. With 266 yards to the hole, he crushed a hybrid that ended three feet from the pin.
Tap-in eagle executed, Westwood birdied four more holes and didn't let the bogey on 14 derail him, concluding the day at the summit. And, despite approaching another birthday in April, the Englishman admitted chasing a 25th win on tour – 44th worldwide – still gets the juices flowing.
“Yeah, I get excited,” he said. “I have to rein myself in when I’m out there playing in the third round and start looking at leaderboards and thinking about winning on Sunday night. That’s where you use your experience, don’t you?
“But I wouldn’t be right if I don’t get that sensation in my mouth and those feelings. Anybody who’s been successful in sport loves being in the cut and thrust of it, playing the big games, the majors and getting in contention. That’s what you do all the hard work for.”
Most of Westwood’s work now is done in the gym. It has prolonged an already illustrious career that, after more than four years without a victory, breathed new life with his most recent success, at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa in late 2018.
Now, Westwood’s hunting a second Rolex Series title. “I don’t know how much time I have at this level,” he said. “I’m 46 – 47 in April – and I feel great. As long as I’ve got the drive to stay healthy and go in the gym and work hard when I get out here.
“I clearly don’t work as hard when I’m at home. But I don’t think I need to do that any more. I’ve been playing this game for 33 years now and I don’t think a lot’s going to change in the golf swing. There’s just a little bit of fine-tuning here and there, and holing putts on any given week.”
Yet, even with the mindfulness and maturity, there’s some things that still escape not only Westwood, but anybody competing on the National Course. Namely, predicting for certain what score it’ll take to win on Sunday.
“One better than everybody else,” Westwood said. “I can't tell the future. I'm just going to go out there and play as well as I can, and if it's good enough, then great. I know I'm talented enough to win the tournament. It's just a case of applying myself.”