Lee Westwood

The Host with the Most

After winning his 25th title on the European Tour earlier this season against a strong field at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Lee Westwood is raring to go as he hosts this week’s Betfred British Masters for the second time. The Englishman brings the event back to Close House after first welcoming the European Tour’s finest players to the North East in 2017. It’s a venue he knows better than most, having recently tweaked various aspects of the Colt Course, and he’ll be hoping his local knowledge will guide him to win tournament No.26 as the event kick-starts the Tour’s highly anticipated UK Swing. Here, Lee explains his connection with Close House and his friendship with Sir Graham Wylie.

When did your relationship with Close House first begin?
I was asked to come up and open the course by Alan Shearer about nine years ago. I hadn’t really spent any time up here, but I came up and was really impressed with the golf course. It was new, but it felt more like a mature course. I got on well with the people at Close House and then met a woman from up here and decided to move into the area. Everyone is so friendly around the club and it’s an excellent place to practice, with a couple of great ranges that I frequently use. The course is always in pretty good condition, even through the winter months because it drains really well so it’s playable all year round. I really do enjoy it in this part of the world.

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How did you change the Colt Course?
We’ve taken a few bunkers out and also added a few bunkers, especially with the British Masters in mind. We’ve put in quite a few tees to make it a bit longer and add some yardage wherever we can. We’ve slightly changed a couple of greens to allow for more pin positions. Scott Macpherson, the guy who originally designed it, did a great job. It didn’t need much doing to it, just a little tweak here and there. When you’re looking at putting bunkers in – especially fairway bunkers – you’ve got to think where a Tour pro might hit it. You’ve also got to consider an amateur playing from a forward tee, because you want them to be in play for everyone playing the course. I believe all the improvements we’ve done have benefitted the course.

Does the course reward accuracy over length?
You can certainly pull the driver out and try and over-power holes here, but you’ve got to be really accurate, which is ideally what you want because if you hit it too far you need to be penalised if you’re inaccurate. I like golf courses that are strategic, where you have to think your way around, rather than just walk back to the tee and pull driver out every time.

You moved to America for better practice conditions but then moved back to the North East and won two Rolex Series wins – what has changed?
As I’ve got older I’ve almost practiced less and re-diverted what I work on to the more mental side of the game, in addition to working on my short game and my putting. Through the winter I don’t really hit that many balls. I’m aged 47 now and I feel like it wears my body down if I do too much practicing. So, I’ll come out and I’ll play the course, warm up a little bit, mainly on my short game, my putting and my mental approach to it.

You’ve looked more relaxed on the course in recent years and have had your fiancée Helen and son Sam on the bag – is that a coincidence?
It’s been a massive help to have them caddy for me at various points. I’m at a good stage in my life where I can relax now. I’ve done pretty much all there is to do in the game. It sounds simple, but I just want to go out every day and enjoy playing the game and competing in tournaments. That’s really why I think I look more relaxed out there.

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What does it mean to you to be the Host of the British Masters and being able to bring the tournament back here to Close House?
When I did it in 2017 here, I really enjoyed it. Obviously, it’s slightly different this year with no crowds, but as host, you get involved in the tournament a little bit more. You do media days to promote the tournament and you find out what the players want from their point of view. Obviously, I’m a player, so I know to a certain extent what everybody requires. But it’s nice to talk to people and get a grasp of how they see tournaments. Last time I did some promotional work at St. James’s Park for a Newcastle home game and various other events. It’s not happening this year, of course. But it makes you appreciate just what goes on behind the scenes to run a tournament, rather than, as a player, just turning up, teeing it up and playing for lots of money. As host you get to see the workings and the time and efforts behind it all.

What’s the home advantage of knowing the Colt Course so well?
It’s a massive advantage. I’ve played this golf course more than anybody else in the field and with all the different weather conditions and wind directions, which makes the holes play differently. I’ve played in all of those conditions, so I will certainly have a big advantage. I’m looking forward to using that advantage throughout tournament week.

How has your schedule changed due to the Coronavirus?
I’ve found it really difficult to make a plan because things can change so quickly over the space of a couple of weeks. So, I haven’t really put in a solid plan for the rest of the year. It’s unfortunate that The Open – one of the Major championships – has been cancelled and the other three Majors have been moved around. You normally plan your year around those big events and place other tournaments around those weeks. But now the European Tour has put a schedule out I can plan a little bit for the rest of the season. The problem is, we don’t even know what’s going to happen next year with the virus. We’re hoping there won’t be a second spike, but there could be and that could change everything. I’m supposed to be going to the United States for the US PGA Championship in San Francisco, but looking at what’s going on over there I don’t have the confidence that they have got it as under control as well as we do. So, do I go or not? I might opt for staying here and playing a couple more of the UK Swing tournaments.

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Have there been any positives during the lockdown?
This is the biggest break away from competitive golf I’ve had in my career, so I’ve used the opportunity to lose a bit of weight and get fitter. Travelling on numerous flights globally, changing through time zones and spending a long time in air-conditioned ‘airoplane air’ – I can’t imagine that it’s particularly good for your body, so it’s been a good chance to reset, really.

I’m probably about as fit as I’ve ever been. I’m down to 95kg, which is a big reduction from 106kg and I can feel the difference in my joints. My body feels great and I’ve been doing a lot of flexibility and strength work as well. So, I’m looking forward to putting that into practice in the golf swing. Hopefully, when I’ve finished playing a round on a course like Close House, which is quite hilly, I still feel fresh and ready to go for the next day.

Does Helen keep you on your toes?
Yeah, very much so! On some mornings when I might not feel like going in the gym she’s quick to make sure I get working out: ‘go on, get on your bike, get in the gym, do your bit!’  haha.