Happy Westwood, off-target McIlroy, precise Thomas: golf talking points

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Lee Westwood. (PA/Supplied)
Lee Westwood. (PA/Supplied)

A resurgent Englishman, a stuttering Northern Irishman and an American's mind game feature in golf talking points this week:

Westy's secret weapon

Veteran Lee Westwood's stunning early-season form has put him in the frame for a Ryder Cup place with the former world number one playing some of the best golf of his long career.

Last year, the 47-year-old Westwood became the oldest winner of the Race to Dubai, 20 years after first finishing top of the European Tour's order of merit.

He led the Players Championship at Sawgrass going into the last round, the second consecutive week that he had featured in the final group after the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Finishing second behind Justin Thomas returned Westwood to the world's top 20 for the first time since September 2013 and his caddie - and fiancée - Helen Storey can take a huge amount of credit for the Englishman's renaissance.

Storey, a fitness instructor, first picked up the bag at the tail end of 2018 with magical results, Westwood immediately winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa.

She hasn't put it down since and Westwood's rise and relaxed demeanour have seen him fancied by many to end his major drought at The Masters at Augusta next month, where he has finished second twice and has five top-10 finishes in the past decade.

"I'm certainly having as much fun on the golf course as I've ever had," said Westwood. "That probably is helping me play some great golf.

"I think at my stage of my career there's not a lot a caddie can tell me. But, obviously, Helen gets me in a fantastic mood out there. Psychologically, she can help me and say the things that I need to hear."

DeChambeau, who had a front row seat to watch the pair's chemistry in high-pressure final groups on both the past two Sundays, is convinced of Storey's positive influence.

"I think Helen is a big part of it," DeChambeau said. "She's keeping him steady and level-headed. She's a rock. Keeps his mind focused on the right things. She's been awesome for him. And that's one of his secret weapons."

Slow down, Rory

There's an adage in strokeplay golf, play the course not your opponent. But Rory McIlroy seems to have forgotten it lately, to his cost.

The four-time major winner has plunged out of the world's top 10 and missed another cut - by a massive 10 strokes - at the Players Championship last Friday.

McIlroy was already one of the longest hitters on tour, so he raised a few eyebrows with his revelation that trying to get extra speed and distance to keep up with power-hitter DeChambeau had thrown his once enviable smooth swing out of kilter.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't anything to do with what Bryson did at the US Open," said McIlroy.

"October of last year, I was doing a little bit of speed training, started getting sucked into that stuff," said McIlroy.

"Obviously I added some speed and am hitting the ball longer, but what that did to my swing as a whole probably wasn't a good thing. That's what I'm frustrated with."

DeChambeau, who finished third at Sawgrass after winning at Bay Hill the previous week, said he was flattered that anyone was trying to copy his "bomb and gouge" strategy.

DeChambeau, who has massively bulked up his muscular frame while transforming his swing and practice routines, warned: "This journey that I'm on is not taken lightly.

"I wasn't trying to influence anybody. I was just trying to play my own game and hit it as far as I possibly could."

So close to history

Justin Thomas said Sunday's 68 to win the Players Championship was one of the best rounds, tee-to-green, of his life. It was also within a whisker of being the greatest final round ever seen at Sawgrass.

Thomas had hit 17 greens in regulation when he lined up his approach on the 18th. No player had found all 18 in the final round at Sawgrass, with Hal Sutton the last to hit 17 on his way to victory in 2000.

Left with a wedge from 122 yards, some noise from the 17th green slightly unsettled Thomas on his backswing.

He underhit his shot, shouting "Big hop!" in vain, as the ball dug its heels in two inches short of the putting surface.

Thomas was aware that he had missed out on making history.

"I did know that, and I'm not happy about the fact that I missed 18 with a sand wedge to screw that up," he said.

"I should have backed off. Whoever was putting on 17, I heard the fans and I was thinking about that over my shot, which is just horrendous mental work by me."

World rankings:

Men's top 20 for the week beginning 15 March 2021 (change from last week)

1. Dustin Johnson (USA) 11.57 pts

2. Justin Thomas (USA) 9.50 (+1)

2. Jon Rahm (ESP) 8.69 (-1)

4. Collin Morikawa (USA) 7.79

5. Bryson DeChambeau (USA) 7.43 (+1)

6. Xander Schauffele (USA) 6.94 (-1)

7. Patrick Reed (USA) 6.33 (+1)

8. Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 6.26 (-1)

9. Patrick Cantlay (USA) 6.09

10. Webb Simpson (USA) 6.08

11. Rory McIlroy (NIR) 6.0

12. Brooks Koepka (USA) 5.91

13. Tony Finau (USA) 5.44 (+1)

14. Viktor Hovland (NOR) 5.37 (-1)

15. Daniel Berger (USA) 4.82

16. Matthew Fitzpatrick (ENG) 4.62

17. Paul Casey (ENG) 4.33 (+2)

18. Im Sung-jae (KOR) 4.27 (-1)

19. Lee Westwood (ENG) 4.25 (+12)

20. Harris English (USA) 4.14 (-2)

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