Lee Westwood: Will 2012 Masters Be Major Break Through?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IApril 5, 2012

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 05:  Lee Westwood of England smiles after finishing the first round of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, 2012 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Lee Westwood knows a thing or two about pressure.

For years now, he has been saddled with the most unflattering compliment in sports—the best player without a major.

Westwood, 38, has experienced his fair share of heartbreak, including just two years ago on this very same golf course.

Playing in the final round, the Brit had a one-stroke lead and appeared on the verge of finally donning the green jacket and shedding the unpleasant label of "almost" and "near" major winner.

Yet it was Phil Mickelson who walked away with the crown that Sunday, consoling Westwood in a moment eerily reminiscent of the 1999 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart consoled a major-less Mickelson after another close defeat.

Still, close does not amount to much in golf. People do not keep track of top-10s, they keep track of major titles.

If they did, Westwood's recent play would be historic. His seven top-10 finishes in his last 15 majors played is astounding.

Woods, in that same stretch has eight top-10 finishes; Mickelson has seven.

Westwood appears on the verge of posting another strong finish after an opening round 67 on Thursday in the 2012 Masters. With sole possession of first, Westwood becomes the first outright leader on day one since Fred Couples in 2010.

Still, we all know the expression that you cannot win a tournament on Thursday. Westwood still has a lot to prove and many more holes to survive if he is going to claim victory.

Some good omens appeared for Westwood though. He hit 16 of 18 greens on Thursday and 12 of 14 fairways. That helped him score seven birdies to only two bogeys on the scorecard.

If he can continue to avoid trouble, Westwood has the length to take advantage of the par fives, even with the rain-soaked conditions.

He also has the experience of playing under pressure, a load that has actually been lightened with all the expectations and hype being put on the shoulders of Tiger Woods, Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

With the stars aligned at Augusta, one of the top golfers in the world can actually feel the relief of playing under the radar. That is, unless he continues to excel at the top of the leaderboard.

Perhaps Westwood's greatest relief comes not from experience, solid play or famous foes, but a fellow countryman.

Darren Clarke, at age 41, became the oldest first-time major winner since Roberto De Vicenzo in 1967, when he captured the Open Championship before a raucous crowd.

No one expected the elder statesmen to capture a major. He was past his prime and dealing with two American superstars on Sunday.

Clarke, someone who shared the burden of expectations in the early 2000s with Westwood, had dips in his career much like Westwood. These slumps would have destroyed weaker players, but both men have fought back and are now European heroes playing in the Masters this weekend.

We know that golf has been an Irishman's game lately, with Graeme McDowell joining Clarke and McIlroy as major winners in the past few years.

Is Westwood ready to give the United Kingdom something to cheer about?

If he does, you better believe he has earned it.