Lee Westwood has a cherished personal memory of Jack Nicklaus becoming the oldest Masters winner with his son caddying for him and now the Englishman is hoping he can claim that record in similar circumstances.
Nicklaus was 46 when he secured the last of his six Green Jackets in 1986 with son Jackie on his bag. Thirty one years on, 47-year-old Westwood also has son Sam at his side as he bids to use the momentum from some strong performances over the past few months to land an elusive first major victory.
“Even without that, Jack has always been an inspiration the way he played the game, especially his record around here,” said the Worksop man in reply to being asked if Nicklaus savouring a family affair at Augusta National would be driving his Green Jacket bid. “You can’t help being inspired. There’s a few similarities there with age. It would be great to break his record.
“I saw Jack a few weeks ago at the Honda (an event on the PGA Tour), and I still remember the first time I played this tournament in 1997. I played the final round with Jack, and I knew I was playing with him on the Sunday.
“And I went out on the Saturday night and bought the picture, the iconic one (from the 1986 tournament) where he’s following the ball into the hole on 17 with his putter. And, after we played on the Sunday, I had done enough to qualify for the following year, fortunately.
“I think we had to finish top 24 at that stage. And I said to Jack, ‘would you mind signing this picture for me?’ And I still have it to this day all framed up where he’s put, ‘Lee, enjoyed our round, best wishes, Jack Nicklaus’.
“There’s very few people you would do that with. He’s a legend of the game and arguably the greatest player to ever play the game. His record in the major championships and especially the Open Championship and here is second to none.
“I always enjoy speaking with Jack and picking his brains and just being in his company, really. To have a chance to break one of his records would be very special.
“It’s amazing that I’m old enough to have my son on the bag and still be competing in these tournaments, and having Sam here to enjoy the experience with me, I have to close his mouth every now and again when we’re going around here; he loves it so much.”
This week marks Westwood’s 20th appearance in this event, having recorded runner-up finishes in both 2010 and 2016. “I’ve always loved Augusta National,” he said. “I still remember the first time I came here like it was yesterday, really. It’s such a special place. And you feel fortunate to drive down Magnolia Lane, it’s always special.
“I love the walk over the 11th down the hill seeing the 12th in the distance. I came here with you three weeks ago, but even yesterday it sent chills down my spine just to see Amen Corner in the distance there. It’s a very special place.”
Westwood won the European Tour Race to Dubai for a third time in December before recording back-to-back runner-up finishes recently in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship on the PGA Tour. In short, he’s heading into this event in great nick.
“I think it’s the culmination of a lot of different things,” he said. “I’ve obviously been working hard at my game, but I have a good team around me.
“Steve McGregor, we work on the physical fitness side of the game. Ben Davis, I work on the mental side of the game, which I have done for two, three years now and that’s made a big difference. Liam James on the swing. Try not to forget anybody. There’s a big team.
“It’s not just one thing that makes you play well. Golf’s got so many different facets. Phil Kenyon on my putting, as well. I went to the pencil grip about two years now which has made a huge difference. When I get under pressure, I feel more comfortable under pressure. All that and playing well has bred confidence.
“I maybe don’t play as well as often anymore, but when I do play well, I tend to contend, and, with the work I’ve done on the mental side of the game, I feel a lot more comfortable out there.”
His expectations this week? “I don’t really have any, but I don’t really have any at any tournaments I turn up to anymore,” he insisted. “I just put the preparation in, hit it off the first tee and try and find it and hit it on the green, and hopefully hit it on the green and have a birdie chance and make a few of those. After that, it’s in the lap of the gods, really.”
Last year’s event was held in November due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Dustin Johnson taking full advantage of the soft conditions to break the tournament record with a 20-under-par 268 total. By the sounds of things, around 10-under might get the job done this week.
“This week it’s back to how the golf course should play, fast and firm, and this is how it is at its toughest,” said Westwood. “You’ll see, I think, people who have got a lot of experience around here coming to the top of the leaderboard again.”