Column: Westwood’s last good chance?

For much of his career, Lee Westwood was known as the current “best player to never win a major,” and the Englishman is, quite frankly, one of the best golfers of all-time to never win a major championship.

This week, Westwood is squarely in contention at the 148th Open Championship, sitting a shot back of co-leaders Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes at the event’s halfway mark.

Westwood is no stranger to the position he’s in, but him and those watching alike have to be wondering if this Open is the last good chance that he will have to shred the dreaded “never won a major” label.

When the championship ends Sunday, Westwood will be 46 years, 2 months and 27 days old. A victory would make him the third-oldest player to win a major, four days older than Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters and 11 days younger than the second-oldest, Old Tom Morris in the 1867 Open Championship.

Context would make a win even more historic. No player has ever reached Westwood’s age before winning their first major championship. Jerry Barber, who won the 1961 PGA Championship at age 44, is the oldest first-time major champion.

But what Westwood lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience. He has 24 European Tour wins (eighth-most all-time) and has been a part of seven victorious Ryder Cup teams in his 10 appearances. And while he hasn’t won a major, it isn’t because of a lack of chances over his career.

Westwood has finished in the top five in The Open four times, in addition to three times each at the Masters and U.S. Open and once in the PGA Championship. He has 18 top 10 finishes in majors spanning from 1997-2016, including two in each year from 2009-13.

But Westwood’s form over the last few years hasn’t matched that of his prime. Since a tie for second at the 2016 Masters, Westwood hasn’t finished better than 18th in a major.

After spending most of his career ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s now ranked 78th and has only qualified for three of the last eight majors — in addition to this week, he had a 61st-place finish in last year’s Open and a missed cut at May’s PGA Championship.

Missed cuts this week by contemporaries such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington also serve as a reminder that the golfers of Westwood’s generation are no longer able to contend week in and week out.

But one of those peers, Woods, has won a major this year, proving that it can still be done by someone in their mid-40s (and to say Tiger had also been through a slump before his win would be a huge understatement).

Westwood enters the weekend with more major-championship experience than anyone else in contention, although he’ll have to beat some big names if he wants to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. Behind Lowry and Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood is tied with Westwood one shot back, ahead of a list of contenders that also includes Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, all within three strokes or less. Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are among those further back that could still have a chance with a good weekend.

Surely he feels pressure — he has to know this could potentially be his last good chance at the one thing in professional golf that’s eluded him — but perhaps he can continue his solid play and earn a storybook triumph in his nation’s championship.

Local favorite?

Another storybook ending could take place if Lowry can turn the 36-hole co-lead into his first major championship.

This Open at Royal Portrush is the first contested in Northern Ireland since 1961. But while Northern Ireland had three players in the field, only one made the cut, and Portrush native Graeme McDowell is likely out of contention nine shots back.

The other Northern Irishman each had a memorable first two days — Darren Clarke hit the tournament’s opening shot, birdied the first hole and led early Thursday morning, while Rory McIlroy made a stirring run at the cut line late Friday, coming back from a first-round 79 only to fall one shot short — but will not be around for the weekend.

Who will the locals root for with no one from Northern Ireland in contention? Enter Lowry.

The 32-year-old Irishman, from about 120 miles south of Portrush, not only joins McDowell as the only two players from the island of Ireland to make the cut, but will be the local favorite for the fans at Royal Portrush this weekend.

While Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of history, fans fully supported Lowry over the first two days around the Royal Portrush links. Relations have softened between the two nations in recent decades, and many Irish fans may have crossed the border (about 55 miles away) to attend The Open at Royal Portrush this week.

Other fan-favorites this weekend will be Brits Westwood, Fleetwood and Rose and the always-popular Spieth and Kuchar. But Lowry is in better position than any of those names entering the third round, and may have equal or better support too.