It was Lee Westwood, not the red-hot Rory McIlroy or returning Tiger Woods, who stole the headlines in the opening round of the 2014 PGA Championship.
While Woods flailed his way to a three-over 74 that included four bogeys and McIlroy got off to a late start, Westwood set the pace in the early going. Despite a double bogey to open the round, Westwood bounced back and turned in an impressive six-under 65, which was good enough to place him atop the leaderboard alongside Kevin Chappell and Ryan Palmer.
It was Westwood’s best-ever round at the PGA Championship and tied for his best mark at a major (65 in the 2011 U.S. Open).
What’s more, Westwood carried over some important momentum from his 63 in the final round at Firestone.
He talked about his day, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com: “The golf course was all there in front of me. I just play it as I see it. Last week, I felt like I turned a corner.”
If he has indeed turned a corner, it was apparent with the putter. Westwood drilled four birdie putts from 15 feet or longer, including this one that the PGA Tour captured on hole No. 9:
In a field that includes McIlroy, Woods, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and a number of other marquee names, Westwood is the under-the-radar contender who could finally capture his first major title. Sure, McIlroy appears primed to dominate golf for the foreseeable future, but all Westwood needs is one magical four-day stretch.
Westwood’s 2014 season hasn’t exactly been a career best. He does have two top-10 and five top-25 marks to his credit, but he finished in the top 10 six times in 2013 and has already missed six cuts in 16 events.
He ranks 62nd in driving distance, 138th in greens in regulation percentage, 91st in scoring average and 67th in total putting.
However, even in the midst of this middle-of-the-road year for Westwood, there is one stat to keep an eye on going forward at the PGA Championship. His 18.43 percent birdie or better clip on par fours is good enough for seventh on the tour this year.
It is imperative to avoid mis-hits and take care of the par fours at majors because that is where so many golfers lose their grip on the leaderboard. For one, the majority of the holes on the golf course fall under that category, but the par fives allow some wiggle room if a mistake is made.
Ironically, Westwood made his few mistakes Thursday on those par fours and paid for it. He posted that double bogey on No. 1 and another bogey on No. 15, otherwise it would have been an incredible round. It wouldn’t be much of a leap to assume that he reverts back to his old ways in the latter rounds on the par fours.
That could very well spell trouble for the rest of the field because Westwood shares the lead even with those hiccups.
Westwood’s window to finally win a major championship may be closing fast at the age of 41, which is why Thursday’s opening round at Valhalla was so encouraging. While the rest of the golf world focuses on McIlroy’s chase for another crown and Woods’ struggles, Westwood looks ready to finally capture that elusive title.
*All stats courtesy of Westwood’s PGATour.com profile.
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