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Westwood Grabs European Win


What should have been a proud march to victory by Darren Clarke in the Smurfit European Open on Monday turned instead into a full-scale retreat in the face of an irresistible advance by the man who is possibly his closest friend in golf. Lee Westwood is the buddy who, for just a few hours, was transformed into his implacable enemy.

Clarke put together two of the finest cards in the modern era of the European Tour with scores of 60 and 66 on Saturday and Sunday. It was generally believed that he would not need to do much more than to remain vertical in the last round to claim his second victory of the season.

It didn't turn out that way at all. The unadorned figures were that Westwood won with a final 65 and a 17-under-par total of 271; but there was a whole lot more to it than that.

Westwood was playing in the penultimate group on the course at The K Club on this final day but was thought to have little or no chance of making up the seven-stroke deficit between him and Clarke.

Westwood, though, was never possessed by negative thoughts. "I knew that that this is not an easy course and that although you could score 60 and 66 on it, your score could also go in the opposite direction," he said.

"I thought I had a chance if I could get some birdies on the board. I must admit, though, that the way Darren was playing, I thought I could hear the fat lady tuning up her voice."

The sound Westwood thought he could hear was the weeping of Clarke's muse. She tried, oh how she tried to help him on the early holes, when he needed birdies to widen the six-shot gap by which he led Peter O'Malley, his closest pursuer overnight.

But she was pushed out of the way by the forces of evil who took over Clarke's putter and led him to drop three shots in the four holes from the sixth.

Clarke had taken 25 putts in his second round and 27 in his third. The strokes that got away on those four horror holes contributed to a total of 38 this time round. It was beyond explanation, just as it had been when Clarke had been reducing The K Club's reputation to rubble on rounds two and three.

Maybe it was the fact that the big Ulsterman was playing in front of a partisan crowd of his own people. They were desperately seeking the first European Tour victory by an Irishman on home soil for 17 years, but their very hunger for home success may have communicated itself too acutely to Clarke.

He never stopped trying; perhaps he tried a tad too much. Whatever the reason, he was not even a shadow of the man who had swept all before him to the cusp of the final round.

Westwood, on the other hand, was waxing even as his pal was waning. He had already narrowed the seven-shot gato five with birdies at the first and third holes when he came to the seventh.

He birdied that, then birdied the eighth and ninth, too. When that putt dropped he was, briefly, level, but when Clarke's par putt slipped past the hole a few minutes later, Westwood moved ahead for the first time.

Clarke could do nothing to stem the tide, and when Westwood's trusty putter gave him more birdies at the tenth and 13th he held a three-stroke lead.

In the space of eight holes, eight shots had changed hands. Clarke, by now a broken man, could only par in and Westwood's two subsequent birdies meant that he could afford the comparative luxury of a double-bogey six on the 16th when he put his second shot into water.

"I know Darren will feel that he should have won it, but once somebody starts coming at you it's hard to re-group and focus on doing the things you were doing when you were shooting 60 and 66," he said.

"It wasn't until the birdie on the 15th that I started believing that this could be my day."

"I made a little mental error on the 16th and just came off the shot. It looked like a bit of a flying lie and I backed off it and leaked it right."

"Having said that, I think I did well to re-group and finish 3, 4. I was pleased with myself."

"I didn't really think I'd blown it at the 16th, because I knew they had tough holes to play. The 16th is no piece of cake. You drop in the drop-zone and try to get up and down."

"If you don't manage that, you just play the last two as well as you can. So much has happened this week you didn't know what was going to happen next."

Westwood's back-to-back victories will put him in fine fettle for the approaching challenges of the U.S. PGA Championship, followed two weeks later by the NEC World Invitational at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, then the Ryder Cup in September.

On the domestic front, this victory, which brought his earnings in two weeks to almost £360,000, enabled him to continue to foster hopes of stopping Colin Montgomerie from claiming his seventh European Order of Merit victory in succession.

He is now in second place in the money list, £120,000 behind Montgomerie. With mega-cash on the table at Medinah and Firestone, good finishes by the young Englishman would put him in a threatening position. Montgomerie, a disappointing and disappointed tied 15th at The K Club, won't be able to rest easy, that's for sure.

"The order of merit was a realistic proposition, no matter what happened this week," Westwood said. "I'm starting to feel that I can win tournaments like the PGA and NEC. The order of merit is far from over -- I've given myself a great chance with today's round and this week's result."

Clarke, meanwhile, was inconsolable. "When I started, I imagined if I played half-decent it would be enough," he said.

"It'going to take me a long time to get over losing a six-shot lead. This has been one of my most disappointing days ever -- 60 and a hole in one and all that stuff, and I still don't win the championship. It would have meant an awful lot to me."

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