Lee Westwood hesitated to admit he ever considered giving up golf.
In fact, with his dry sense of humor, Westwood, a 39-year-old Englishman, tried to milk a laugh out of a question about his slump in the early 2000s.
That’s not out of character, except that he was answering via email.
“If I ever contemplated quitting the game, I wouldn’t have thought about it for long,” Westwood said Monday. “I did have a low point just after the turn of the century when things didn’t go according to plan.
“But golf is my only source of income and I was too old to try to play left wing for my favorite football team, Nottingham Forest. That’s football played with your feet.”
Westwood might not confess, but his father John told GolfWorld for its June 16 issue, “I know that one time he was close to packing it all in. He told me more than once how he wasn’t enjoying the game and that he might give it all up.”
Last month during the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club, Brian Davis, a native of London who now lives in Orlando, Fla., recalled Westwood’s difficult times after he set a European Tour record for money earnings in 2000 with seven worldwide victories.
“I remember when he was getting ready to quit the game,” Davis said. “He’d just had enough. You couldn’t blame him.
“Going from the top to the bottom and then back to the top is pretty amazing. There’s not many people who could do that, I can assure you. I don’t think anyone could.”
Coming into this week’s $8.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Westwood is ranked fourth in the world. He’s finished ninth or better in three of his past four appearances at Firestone Country Club, including a tie for second in 2008. Dating back to 2004, he has four top 10s.
He looks forward to the trip to Akron not just to play the South Course, but to eat at Ken Stewart’s Grille, which he put “among the top five restaurants I’ve ever been to in America.”
With seven top-3 finishes and nine top 10s in his past 18 majors, he’s considered one of the favorites every time he tees it up in a Grand Slam event. That shouldn’t change at next week’s PGA Championship at Kiawah.
Most of his rivals on the PGA Tour don’t know him well, although they might soon. At the end of this year he plans to move his family from his native Worksop to the Jupiter/West Palm Beach area in Florida, mainly to escape the English winters.
But even those who haven’t regularly enjoyed Westwood’s sense of fun away from the course greatly respect him. Pointing to his rise, fall, and greater rise, they call him the European version of Steve Stricker, who lost his tour card in 2005 but rediscovered his game hitting out of a trailer in the December snow in Madison, Wis.
Now 14th in the world, Stricker has climbed as high as No. 2. Westwood, who fell out of the top 200 on Feb. 16, 2003, rebounded to spend 22 weeks at No. 1.
“They almost have the same storyline — great young players, winners on tour, a lot of potential, fell off the map,” 2010 Bridgestone champion Hunter Mahan said at Congressional.
Mahan wasn’t the only one to make the comparison. So did Scotland’s Martin Laird.
“He was good, then disappeared for a few years, then came back to be a world-class player,” Laird said of Westwood at the AT&T National. “There’s a lot of respect for someone who put in the work and got back to No. 1.”
The work that required impressed 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk.
“It’s tough to get there the first time, but I would bet he would even say it’s tougher to get there the second,” Furyk said at Congressional.
Greg Owen grew up in Mansfield, England, near Worksop, and played junior golf with Westwood.
“I was never in the top echelon of the amateur ranks, so I never played any senior amateur stuff, so I never got involved with him that much,” Owen said at Congressional. “From what I could see when I was growing up he was always put up on this pedestal.”
Playing with Westwood during his slump, Owen said, “It wasn’t like every shot was horrific. Every now and then he’d hit one and you were like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”
Westwood has said injuries contributed to his struggle. He withdrew from the 2001 WGC-NEC Invitational after jarring his left wrist on the 13th tee at Firestone.
Some might say Westwood reinvented himself during his comeback, but Westwood said there was no grand plan.
“Things came together gradually, there weren’t any life-changing decisions to be made,” Westwood said via e-mail. “I did start working out more often and then watched my diet and what I drank. My approach was just a sensible one, nothing changed massively.”
Once weighing a reported 270 pounds, Westwood is now under 200 and bench-presses “240 pounds and counting.”
His move to Florida, which Westwood has been contemplating for a couple years, could be considered another step in his rebirth.
“I’m not doing it merely for the sake of it,” he said after the final round of the British Open. “I think playing over there on the courses all the time and with those kind of practice facilities and the right kind of weather should have a big effect, considering three of the four majors are played there.”
Although he’s considered the best player never to win a major, Westwood doesn’t sound consumed by that.
Asked after the British Open if it’s only a matter of time, Westwood said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never win one. Maybe I will. I could. Keep working hard and trying to get myself into position. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
“I’ll go out and play golf for a living on the best golf courses in the world in the biggest tournaments. It’s not a bad way to pass time.”
Major will come?
Laird, who lost to Westwood in the quarterfinals of this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, doesn’t think it will be long.
“He’s probably the most impressive ball-striker I’ve ever played with,” Laird said. “All the talk is about not winning a major, but I think that will come. He’s way too good a ball-striker not to win a major.”
While he waits, Westwood has other interests.
He and his wife Laurae are busy with their two children, Sam, 11, and Poppy, 8. Laurae is the sister of fellow European Tour player Andrew Coltart. Westwood met his bride-to-be at the 1994 British Open at Turnberry, then was introduced by Coltart the following year at St. Andrews, where she was working in the spa at the Old Course Hotel.
Westwood must indulge his passion for soccer, which seems like his favorite on-course topic.
He owns several horses, including 2-year-old filly, Pacific Ballet, with trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, a native of Bath.
“They haven’t been doing too well lately,” Westwood said via email. “But that’s racing. Like golf, things change quickly. I’ve always loved the sport of kings and there’s not much that beats shouting home a winner, especially when it’s one of your own.”
Not much, that is, except a major. Considering the respect and popularity Westwood has gained, that might spark shouting on two continents.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.