Pressure is off as Westwood targets the Masters

Former world No 1 Lee Westwood has revealed that being the second best player on the rankings has provided him with a welcome respite.

The 37-year-old Worksop professional spent 17 weeks as the game’s hottest player from November to February, but as the build-up to next week’s Masters intensifies, the highest-ranked golfer without a major to his name has enjoyed getting used to the quieter life away from top spot.

Martin Kaymer is the current incumbent of the No 1 spot, thanks to a terrific run of form that included a maiden major title at last August’s PGA Championship.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Westwood’s desire to add the only accolade his cv is missing burns as intently as ever, but the fact that he has been able to prepare away from the limelight of world No 1 has proven more of a help than a hindrance.

Speaking on the eve of the Shell Houston Open, he said: “It’s nice to be No 1, people coming up to you and saying you’re best in the world but, at the same time, I’ve not been really one for standing around talking about things for too long.

“I’d rather do without all that high publicity.

“I think you get to the stage where people want your opinion a lot more on various things, not just golf, not that I’m qualified on much more than golf. It’s very time-consuming.

“No 1 spot is just a reflection of the hard work put in and the consistency shown on the golf course. You try not to think about it too much.

“Now since going down to No 2, it’s less attention. Being No 1 draws a lot of attention to you. You can almost feel like you can just concentrate on getting on with things when you move away from the No 1 spot.

“Being No 1 is something you’re very proud of at the time but I think everybody’s attention in that part of the world rankings right now would be towards next week and getting ready for that and being in the best shape possible come Thursday.”

To achieve that, the man who finished in the top three in four of his last five majors – he missed the 2010 PGA with a calf strain – teed off alongside defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson last night in the first round of the Houston Open.

Playing the week before a major is something he has scheduled in recently and a feel issue which he believes has attributed to a run of form in the game’s defining events that has seen him come within a whisker of breaking his duck.

“It helped a lot (playing Houston last year),” he continued.

“I like to be competitive going into the week of a major. You look at the all the major championships, I’m playing the week before.

“I could be rusty for just nine holes and that’s too much in a major championship.

“The main point (in Houston) is they try to get the greens as quick as possible which when you get to Augusta next week makes it not as big a shock when you see the speed of their greens, because you’ve been prepared for it this week.

“The greens are pretty immaculate this week and run a great pace.”

Westwood’s rise to No 1 owed much to his consistency in contending, with the two-time European No 1 never far from the front in every tournament he played.

On earning ascension to top spot on November 1, he promptly finished second in China, third at the Dubai World Championship and then claimed a win at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa.

Since the turn of the year, however, he has been a bit part player, with 18th being his highest finish in America and 15th in Europe. He has played only six tournaments, but missed the cut in Qatar, just a fortnight after finishing 64th as Kaymer cantered to victory in Abu Dhabi.

Kaymer succeeded him at the summit after reaching the final of the Accenture Matchplay, but despite his poor return this year, Westwood heads to Augusta confident his game is in good shape.

“The way I’ve been hitting the ball on the range, I’ve seen a big improvement. I’ve taken it to the golf course and played solidly,” he said.

“I’ve been toying with a new putter which I’ll use this week. I haven’t been particularly happy over the first couple of months of the season with the old one. This one is a bit easier to line up.

“I generally keep the same stuff in my bag but I’ll decide last minute whether it’s a two-iron or a five-wood at Augusta. Augusta is generally a five-wood because you need to fly the ball in high. I’ve been doing a little bit of work with different bounces on sand irons. It’s nice to take a bit of the bounce off the lob wedge at Augusta with the lies you get there and the firmness of the sand in the traps.

“It’s nice to get under the ball a little bit.”

Ireland’s Peter Lawrie holds a three-stroke lead at the end of the first round of the Trophee Hassan II in Agadir after an eight-under-par 64 at the Golf Du Palais Royal.

With the field split between that course and the Golf De L’Ocean for the first two rounds, Lawrie leads from defending champion Rhys Davies of Wales, England’s John Bickerton and India’s Shiv Kapur, who are tied for second.

Malton’s Simon Dyson shot a level par round of 71 while Hull’s Richard Finch, Sheffield’s Danny Willett and Harrogate’s John Parry each carded a 72.