It's a curious fact that kids at a golf tournament—being less interested in the competition than in the carnival aspect—tend to collect around railings, scaffolds and other bits of temporary infrastructure. Lee Westwood, the young English pro, was 16 when he saw his first Ryder Cup, at the Belfry in 1989, and his clearest memories are of steel pipes and the undersides of aluminum planks. "I was hanging under the grandstand when Christy O'Connor Jr. hit his two-iron to four feet to win the Cup," Westwood said last week at the British Open. "I didn't exactly have the best view, but you could see a bit through people's legs."
So of course Westwood was amused by all the youngsters running around Royal Troon—beneficiaries of a new Open policy admitting under-18s for free. At the practice ground, where children clung to the rails of a police barricade, Westwood won friends by occasionally strolling over to chat and sign autographs. Last Thursday afternoon he struck up a conversation with 10-year-old Tom Chambers of Birmingham, England, a visored youngster with an appealing smile and a red autograph book. "Who's the best player you've got so far?" asked Westwood.
"Ernie Els," said Tom. "You're supposed to say me," Westwood said, looking hurt.
Well, it's only a matter of time. In the last year and a half Westwood, a schoolteacher's son from the one-time mining town of Worksop, has won tournaments in Europe, Japan and Malaysia, pocketed more than £1 million in prize money and shot to fourth in the European Ryder Cup standings. In April, at his first Masters, Westwood drew notice by recovering from a first-round 77 to finish 24th. While coming in 19th at the U.S. Open in June, he startled analysts by ranking fifth in driving distance and leading the field in greens hit in regulation. He has even been given the official kiss of death—by European Ryder Cup captain Seve Ballesteros, no less, who last year called Westwood "the Tiger Woods of Europe."
Westwood was better than Woods by two strokes at Troon, finishing a solid 10th at two under, but Ballesteros's comparison is the kind that makes Americans smile and Europeans shudder. It has been a decade since the emergence of José María Olazábal and Colin Montgomerie, and subsequent wunderkinder have quickly become whatever-happened-tos. England's Steven Richardson, once touted as the next Jack Nicklaus, finished second on the European tour in '91 and performed brilliantly at that year's Ryder Cup but has since played his way into obscurity. Gordon Sherry, the tall Scottish amateur who stole the spotlight from Woods at the '95 Open at St. Andrews, turned pro in '96 and turned sour by '97, losing his game and his European tour card.
Consequently, the European Ryder Cup team has failed to renew itself in the '90s. The British and the Irish, in particular, tend to view their young stars as flat-dwellers pondering the purchase of a flourishing houseplant—i.e., with distrust. The 28-year-old Northern Irishman, Darren Clarke, whose tie for second at Troon was his seventh top 10 finish this year, is second in the Ryder Cup rankings and looks ready to blossom. But so did Peter Baker, a Ryder Cupper and two-time winner in 1993, and now Baker's brown leaves are all over the floor. Ireland's Padraig Harrington, 11th in the Ryder Cup rankings after his tie for fifth at Troon, won the Spanish Open in May 1996 but hasn't been able to win since and reminds some onlookers of Andrew Coltart, who visits the top five often but has no victories in seven seasons and is overripe on the vine.
Few who know Westwood expect him to wilt. "He's like Tiger Woods in that he hasn't learned to be afraid," says a British writer. "His biggest asset is his attitude," echoes Peter Cowen, swing coach to both Westwood and Clarke. "He's unflappable."
"Nothing bothers me," agrees Westwood, who was so relaxed after an opening 73 at Troon that he lay on the ground on the driving range, soaking up the sunshine and sweet meadow smells like a poet on holiday. Clearly Westwood is not intimidated by big names. Playing with Nicklaus in the final round of the Masters, Westwood shot 70 to the great man's 78, and when Nicklaus apologized for his play the youngster put his arm around the Bear and said, "It's just nice being out here with you." ("A very nice player," Nicklaus confirmed at Troon, "and he handles himself well.")
When Westwood turned up as a European tour rookie in '93, his insouciance struck some as brashness. "He didn't give serious answers to questions," says London Sunday Times golf writer Lauren St. John, "but he's learned. Now I find him sincere and direct. 'Unspoiled' is the word."
The fact that Westwood has become chums with Clarke is intriguing to those who know the moody, impulsive Irishman. From Clarke, Westwood draws a certain spark, an aggressiveness he otherwise might not possess. Clark, in turn, has learned to be more patient and resilient. "If Darren had Lee's attitude he could be one of the great players," says Cowen. "Darren knows that, and he's starting to change." To cement their symbiotic relationship, Westwood recently joined Clarke in a thoroughbred racehorse syndicate in Ireland. One of their horses, Hopping Higgins, finished second in a Ladies Day race at Ascot, but Westwood claims he lacks his friend's taste for the big wager. "I do like watching the horses," he says.