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Westwood aims for first major win at Pebble Beach

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Once, in what seems like another lifetime, Lee Westwood was, well, the Rory McIlroy of his day. The next big-time British golfer. Or so it appeared.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Once, in what seems like another lifetime, Lee Westwood was, well, the Rory McIlroy of his day. The next big-time British golfer. Or so it appeared.

Funny how that stuff can often take detours.

He'd won seven tournaments across the globe in 1998, four more in 1999 and seven others in 2000. And rose to fourth in the world rankings. It was just a matter of time until he became Nick Faldo.

Then, it pretty much went poof. By the end of 2002, he was No. 181.

He had to reinvent his game. And, most important, learn to better understand himself.

"Maybe the early success meant I took things for granted," he said recently. "I was nowhere near fit enough. And when you want to make changes in your golf swing, and you are a sort of lardy blob . . . it is easier to have more control when you've got a lot more muscle. I started working out at 30, but only seriously got into it at 32 or 33.

"What I learned was that I had to take more responsibility on my shoulders, rather than waiting for other people to give me the solution. I was impatient and ended up talking to too many people, taking in too much information. I now do the things I believe are right for me."

And, at 37, he's again among the best there is at the game he decided to make his life some 2 decades ago.

On Sunday, he got career win No. 30, in the St. Jude Classic at Memphis, his first PGA Tour win in a dozen years (a span of 122 starts).

Of even more relevance this week is his recent record in the majors. Westwood hasn't been out of the top three in the last three. He was also third in the 2008 U.S. Open. It makes him one of the blokes to focus on at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where the 110th U.S. Open starts tomorrow.

This is his 50th major. The next one he wins will be his first. It's never easy being that guy.

"Was [Memphis] a monkey off my back?" Westwood said. "Well it was for [the media]. Because you kept going on about it. It didn't worry me too much. But it's nice to obviously win over here again, 12 years after the first one. It must be a record.

"To come out on top last week is a big confidence boost going into a major championship."

He calls this his favorite course. He's playing the first 2 days with Tiger Woods, who's won this thing three times, and Ernie Els, who's won it twice. Westwood finished fifth here in 2000, when Tiger held on to win by 15.

No European has won this major since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970.

"I think it's coincidence that we've not played well enough," Westwood offered. "We have had a lot of good chances recently. But we have not finished it off. And if you don't finish it off, you don't deserve to win. So we got a record number of competitors in the field, I think, and 59 or 60 or so seems like a good percentage to have a decent chance."

As for his close calls he said: "There's a couple of things I would change. The outcome of all of them, for starters. But there's only really the [2009 British] Open Championship that I feel like I've let slip away, with my own doing let one go. But all in all, I think I've played pretty good in the last rounds. Haven't quite done enough, really.

"The most pressure comes from me and what I want to do. I really don't pay much attention to what you lot write and think. So the main challenge is fulfilling my own expectations, and especially over the last couple of years, I've been putting myself in position to win a major, and I feel like I ought to be expected to win one now."

He was here the Sunday and Monday before Memphis, and put in 45 holes' worth of preparation. He did the same thing before the Masters in April.

"I had a caddie that's been here for 30 years," Westwood said. "I [wanted to] see if he had a few little gems of inspiration or knowledge that maybe he might drop in there and give us a couple of ideas."

Even if it cut into his quality World Cup time.

"I've been waking up in the morning and flicking it on and watching," he acknowledged. "I didn't get to see the [England-USA] game. By all accounts, it was fairly average."

What about the U.S. goal?

"Mistakes happen," he said. "I've made them on the golf course, at spectacular times. You're not trying to do it. It's just one of those things."

Spoken like someone who's out to make the most of his own mulligans.