In this week’s player blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Lee Westwood reflects on a history-making 2020, staying motivated and the idea of legacy
Coming back to Abu Dhabi as defending champion of such a prestigious title - and a Rolex Series event - is a great way to start the year. I’ve always played pretty well in this part of the world, and my two best results of the 2020 season were here in Abu Dhabi and then a second place finish in Dubai at the end of the year, so I’m hoping I can have another fast start.
Last year’s win here was very much a catalyst for me in 2020. I hadn't played much golf coming into the event, probably five or six weeks without hitting a ball, so I didn't really know what to expect. I'd been out to Dubai for a weekend to practice, and that's the only golf I had played since the end of the season. I was hitting it alright, had a couple of days with Robert Rock and got a few good swing thoughts, then got off to a steady start and shot 65 in the third round to take the lead. On Sunday I did enough to stay in front in what was like a comfort zone really, and it felt like that week was the start of some really good golf before the Covid-19 pandemic.
I hadn’t actually started thinking about winning the Race to Dubai until a few weeks before the final event of the season, but I had very little expectation because I spent more time on the treatment table with my back than out on the driving range in Dubai. I only played nine holes on the Wednesday, so I went into the week with no expectations.
The injury was just due to the effects of the pandemic really. I mean the year was strange. I played a lot of tournaments close together, not taking enough rest, and then I wasn’t able to get any soft tissue treatment done. I think for any sportsman when they’ve got an injury there’s no expectation, because your focus has been taken away from the result or the outcome and is more on how you’re feeling. You’ve just got to trust that if the physios have done their work and the painkillers have gotten you through, you can do your job but until you play a few holes and then get through nine and then get through 18, you don't really know whether you're going to finish the week or not.
When it got to Sunday, I knew there was a chance that I could win but there were a lot of variables in play because it felt like Patrick had it in his hands and Matt also had a chance. I figured I needed to birdie two of the last three to have any kind of a chance and managed to birdie 16 and 18 and made a good putt on 17. I gave myself the chance by finishing strong, and that is all you can really do. You can't control what they're doing, you can only control what you're doing and try and put pressure on them with your play, and it worked out.
The injury I had in Dubai is still there, but it’s basically just wear and tear, and I know if I manage it and do the correct things, I should be alright to compete to 100% and at the level I want to. It’s just one of those things. You don’t bounce out of bed at 47 after you’ve battered your body playing golf for 28 years, but it’s just a management thing for me.
I think I place more of a focus on the importance of recovery now, and I play a little bit less now that when I first came out and I would play 35 to 40 events. I think as you get older, you try and save yourself a little bit, because your body won’t let you do that. I’ve also found over the years that I felt more comfortable having had a big break, because I don’t have the fear factor of taking four weeks off and thinking my game isn’t going to be there when I get back on the golf course.
I also structure my years a lot better now too to make sure I am recovering. When you get older, your body just needs that little rest and a natural break to recharge the batteries and do stuff in the gym to get it back into a strong position - because it's tough to work out and get your body in the place you want it to be while playing golf. If it’s a continuous season this year, I’ll try to get more breaks in there. I’m playing three in a row here, then I have a couple of weeks off before probably six in seven weeks in Florida, but after that, there will be a lot more breaks for the second part of the year. I’ve got to be careful leading up to The Masters I don’t play too much, so it’ll just be a monitoring job on my back really.
I do a lot of fitness work, but I think the biggest thing that’s changed in the 20 years between winning that first Order of Merit and the 2020 Race to Dubai is how I divide my time. I hardly hit any balls anymore. The longest I hit balls for the first week I came out here has been for an hour and a half, because I did do more gym work and more work on my short game and putting. My swing is my swing, I’ve had it for a long time so while I do a little bit of work on it, I try and do work on the areas of the game that I think I need to address first. Right now, that’s staying healthy and fit and basically making sure from 100 yards in I’m sharp with my wedge play and around the green.
I’ve also been working with Steve Peters and a lad called Ben Davis for a few years on the psychology side of the game. It’s such a big part of golf, because you’re out there for five hours, and you’ve got to be able to turn your concentration on and off and not let destructive or negative thoughts come in. It’s not easy, and it’s something I work hard on, because you’ve got to be strong mentally when you’re coming down the stretch with a chance of winning. Helen’s been a great help with it on the course too and knows what to say – or when not to say anything at all. It works pretty well.
Not many people win things like Race to Dubai’s or Order of Merits at my age, so the longevity of my career makes me proud, that I’m still fit enough and still have the enthusiasm to work. When you’re 47 it would be easy to turn up to a tournament with a weekend’s practice and see how I get on, but I came out to Abu Dhabi 12 days before, working hard on my game and in the gym to make sure my body is in good order for the season. That’s what people don’t see, and they are the things that give you longevity. There’s no quick fix to everything – it’s a long arduous process if you want to get to the top of any sport, and I’ve never been afraid of hard work.
I like doing all the work that other people don’t too, in the gym or working on the putting green. I just love playing golf and competing, and that’s really what keeps me motivated. The bonus for me is trying to do it under pressure to win Race to Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships.
After I won the Race to Dubai, I was asked about the idea of legacy. It was nice to get all those compliments and to be called an ambassador of the European Tour, but honestly the idea of legacy is not something I’ve ever really thought about before. I’ve always championed the European Tour because it’s a great Tour, and even when I played a lot on the PGA TOUR, I still played a fairly full schedule. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about golf is that it can take you to different corners of the world where you can experience different cultures, and the European Tour provides that opportunity. And with everything, it’s made me a more rounded person. I think the idea that I represent the Tour is probably because people feel like they have an affinity with me, having watched me grow up out here for over a quarter of a century, from a young 19-year-old to now.
I also think everyone can see I look at things in a different way than when I did starting out. This is now going to be the start of my 28th year playing on the European Tour, and I have different perspectives that maybe some of the young kids don’t. I see how the tournaments work, what the sponsors want from the players, and in hosting the Betfred British Masters at Close House a few times, plus having been involved with all of the promotions and decisions a year out, I’ve gained a bigger appreciation for the infrastructure that goes into it.
Looking ahead, I’d love to play in The Ryder Cup this year if I can make it into the team, but right now it’s not the focus or priority for me. It’s difficult to focus on what’s going to make you qualify, because the only thing I can control is doing the hard work to give myself the best opportunity by hitting fairways and holing putts, and then other things will come.
I’ve pretty much always had that mentality. Things like winning the Race to Dubai or qualifying for a Ryder Cup are such a long process that I’ve always felt I was better off thinking about the little things, playing well week to week, then the ultimate goals. You can only control what’s there in front of you, and I’ve always felt that the little things are what lead to the bigger things. For right now, I love playing golf, and my main focus, while I’m still healthy and can still compete, is to go out there and work hard so that I can give myself a chance to win golf tournaments.