It sounded like gamesmanship or hype—maybe both—when Ryder Cup captain Seve Ballesteros, while announcing his lineup for last fall's matches, called baby-faced Lee Westwood the Tiger Woods of Europe. The 24-year-old Westwood made Ballesteros look like a prophet by carrying his partner, steely veteran Nick Faldo, to a pair of wins at Valderrama, including one over Woods and Mark O'Meara, during Europe's stunning upset defeat of the U.S.
During the next two months Westwood won three tournaments, including the European tour's season-ending Volvo Masters and the Australian Open, in which he beat Greg Norman in a playoff. Last week, at the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans, it was the Englishman's turn at English Turn Golf and Country Club to do what five-time Euro tour money leader Colin Montgomerie hasn't been able to—win in the U.S. Westwood coasted home on Sunday with a 15-under-par 273 for a three-stroke victory over rookie lefthander Steve Flesch.
British golf is littered with next great hopes-where-are-they-nows like Peter Baker, Steve Richardson and Paul Way immediately spring to mind—yet while the comparison to Woods might be over the top, Westwood's record says that he's the real deal. He hasn't finished worse than 30th in seven starts in the U.S. and has seven wins on four continents. (Stay tuned, Africa.)
In this golden age of gifted youngsters, it's time to add Westwood's name to those of Ernie Els, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Woods. "I read a couple of articles that compared him to Tiger, and that's a good comparison," Els says. "He hits the ball closer to Tiger than I do. He's a player to watch, definitely. I think he's got what it takes."
Former PGA champion Wayne Grady was convinced after playing the first two days at English Turn with Westwood, who opened with rounds of 69 and 68 despite not having made many putts. "He's typical of the new order—big and strong, but with a short game to match his length," says Grady. "There's nothing missing from the entire package. This boy is going to be around a long, long time. What's more, he's a nice kid."
With his round cheeks and toothy grin, Westwood looks like a 15-year-old Boy Scout to some, but his long, straight drives, aggressive approach shots, deft putting touch and unfaltering confidence make him seem like a natural for a green jacket. Westwood is better than a long shot this week at Augusta. As a Masters rookie last year, he opened with a nervous double bogey and bogey on the way to a 77 but came back with a 71 to make the cut. On Sunday, paired with Jack Nicklaus, Westwood birdied two of the final three holes to shoot 70 and slip into the top 24, thus earning this year's invite. He was excited to play with Nicklaus—he bought a 1986 Masters poster and pulled it out of his bag for Nicklaus to sign after the round—but hardly awed. When Nicklaus got off to a bad start and weakly joked, "Sorry to hold you up," Westwood patted golf's greatest player on the back and said, "Don't worry about it. You'll be all right."
Westwood is not only hard to impress, he's nearly impervious. Like Faldo and Ben Hogan, he seems oblivious to anyone else on the course. Unlike Faldo and Hogan, Westwood smiles a lot. "His attitude on the course is fabulous," says Montgomerie. "His mental ability to put things behind him and get on with it is probably his best asset. Faldo will tell you the way he performed at the Ryder Cup."
Westwood was tested last Saturday by gusting, uneven winds. He made birdies on four of the first seven holes to move into contention, then bogeyed the next two. At the formidable 10th, a 420-yard par-4 with water on the left, the wind was howling from right to left, creating a perfect situation for a blowup. Instead, Westwood split the fairway with his drive, hit a seven-iron 18 feet from the hole and made the birdie putt.
A bigger test came on Sunday after West-wood had built a five-shot lead. At the 14th hole his seven-iron approach ran through the fringe and perched on the edge of the rough. Westwood chose to use his putter, but when he stroked the ball, it popped into the air and came back down on his club, causing a double hit. His ball dribbled forward and stopped 12 feet short of the hole.
Such a gaffe might have unnerved a lesser player. Westwood immediately reported the infraction to Duffy Waldorf, his playing partner, and then faced the tough bogey putt. "He never even flinched," said Flesch, shaking his head. "He ran it right in the gut. That was impressive. He seems fearless."