AUGUSTA, Ga. – For a golfer who has won 37 professional tournaments, played on seven Ryder Cup teams for Europe and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the world ranking in 2010 – England’s Lee Westwood seems easily forgotten.
Currently, he is the third-ranked golfer in the world. But you would not know that by the pre-Masters discussion, which focused heavily on three others – Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.
On Wednesday, Westwood warned that the year’s first major championship would not be a three-horse race.
On Thursday, he slapped an exclamation point to that statement – with a tournament-leading, 5-under-par 67 at Augusta National Golf Club.
It tied Westwood’s best score at a Masters, and gave him the 18-hole lead at a major for the first time in his career. South African Louis Oosthuizen and Sweden’s Peter Hanson trail by one stroke after shooting 68s.
Six guys, including Americans Ben Crane, Jason Dufner and Bubba Watson, shot 69.
With 27 others under par and within four shots of Westwood, the leaderboard is crowded. But of the aforementioned trio of superstars, only one – McIlroy (71) – rallied to be in that group after finishing with birdies at the 17th and 18th holes.
Woods’ loose ball-striking bit him late with back-to-back bogeys to finish at 72. In the final grouping, Mickelson – who suffered just his second triple bogey at a Masters, on the 10th hole – had a 74.
Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley shot a 75 in his first Masters appearance. He is tied for 64th.
Very few were sharper in their ball-striking than Westwood, who hit 16 greens in regulation and never seemed to have much difficulty getting around the famed Augusta National layout. And he looked like the man to beat – not Woods, McIlroy or Mickelson – for one round, anyway.
“I didn’t try and remind everybody (it would not be a three-man race),” Westwood said. “I was just trying to be a voice of common sense.”
Westwood flies low, perhaps, because the only missing entry on his decorated victories list is a major title – and he’s trying for the 56th time this week.
He came close in 2010, battling Mickelson down to the wire at the Masters before losing. He was also the distant runner-up to Oosthuizen at the British Open that year.
Could 2012 be his time to reel one in?
“I’ve been playing well all year,” the 38-year-old said. “I’ve played well in the bigger tournaments, and around the tougher golf courses.
“But I’m trying not to let myself get carried away or anything. I just wanted to come out today and start steady and strong, and play my way into the tournament, which I’ve done.”
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson looked awfully strong, too – at least through 17 holes.
He went to the finishing hole at 5-under par. Then the wheels came off after he sent a low, hooking drive into the deepest grove of trees on the property left of the 18th fairway.
He took two shots to get his ball back on the fairway, then air-mailed a pitching wedge from 136 yards over the green. After a poor chip, he needed three putts to make a quadruple-bogey-8.
Even more astounding was the fact he stayed composed enough to explain that adventurous hole after his round of 71.
“Well, I’ve got a temper, but it’s almost like I got past that stage,” Stenson said. “It’s easier to walk away with just changing the bag (with) no full-length clubs anymore – or just forget about it.”
Meanwhile, Woods’ swing was a mechanical mess from the time he stepped on the driving range. It did not improve once he teed it up, either.
“Same old motor patterns,” Woods said. “The Hank (Haney) backswing was the new downswing.”
Still, he left the 17th tee at 2 under, only to drop two strokes coming home.
“I hit some of the worst golf swings I’ve ever hit today, and that’s all right,” Woods said. “I just hung in there and grinded my way around the golf course and stayed very patient and stayed in the moment.”