GULLANE, Scotland — Lee Westwood has contended enough in the majors that he can identify important moments, even if he could barely see his ball.
He had a one-shot lead on Tiger Woods, standing in grass up to his knees in the dunes left of the par-3 16th hole. It was one of the few bad shots Westwood hit Saturday at Muirfield and by far his worst predicament. Westwood slashed at the ball, and it didn’t reach the green. He used a putter to belt his next shot up the hill to 12 feet.
What followed was a finish that allowed him to believe he was closer than ever to ending his 20-year pursuit of a major.
Westwood poured in the putt to salvage bogey. He picked up two shots on Woods with a birdie on the next hole. He closed with a solid par, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round — and the most significant Sunday of his career.
“That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day — walk off there with a bogey,” Westwood said. “That’s what’s been missing — making those putts. And back it up with a birdie at the next. Those are the sort of things you need to do.”
Had he made putts like that, Westwood might not have missed the playoff at the U.S. Open that Woods won in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Or the playoff at Turnberry in 2009. He might even have been able to hold off Phil Mickelson at the Masters in 2010.
Westwood is considered the best player of his generation without a major.
Maybe that’s about to change.
The 40-year-old from England passed one big test when he outplayed Woods on another tough day at Muirfield for a 1-under-par 70 and grabbed a two-shot lead on Woods and Hunter Mahan, the only other players under par.
“Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one,” said Westwood, who was at 3-under 210. “It’s just a case of going out there tomorrow and having the confidence in my game, which I’ve got. And putting it to the test.”
Sunday figures to be the toughest test of all.
Despite his late blunder by hitting into a bunker and making bogey on the par-5 17th, Woods held it together for a 72. Mahan matched the best score of the third round with a 68 and will play in the final group for the second straight major.
“I’ve got 14 of these things, and I know what it takes to win it,” Woods said. “(Westwood has) won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead, and we’re going to go out there and both compete and play. It’s not just us two. There’s a bunch of guys who have a chance to win this tournament. And all of us need to really play well tomorrow to win it.”
Westwood is the 54-hole leader for the second time in his career. He will try to become only the eighth player dating to 1861 to capture his first major in his 40s. He was hopeful the other close calls will serve him well, though he didn’t seem all that uptight about it.
“I’m hoping it’s going to turn out differently because I haven’t won one yet and I’d like to win one,” he said. “But what can you do? You can only do what you think is right and put all that practice and hard work you’ve done tomorrow, try not to get in your own way mentally and just focus on the job at hand and believe you’re good enough.”
Woods will be in the penultimate group with Masters champion Adam Scott, who had a 70. The Australian not only is poised to be the first player with a multiple major season in seven years, he can atone for his meltdown a year ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“I go out there tomorrow not carrying the weight of the lead or not having won a major,” Scott said. “So it’s a different feeling.”
There are plenty of others still in the game — five major champions within five shots of the lead, a list that goes down to Mickelson at five shots behind.
Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera opened with 12 pars and had a roller-coaster finish — double bogey, birdie, bogey — for a 73. He was at 1-over 214, along with former Masters champion Zach Johnson (73), Henrik Stenson (74) and Ryan Moore (72).
But it all starts with Westwood, who can add to the British sports celebration by capturing his first major. He certainly looked up to the task over 18 holes in the third round, and he didn’t seem the least bit uptight when asked to think about what was at stake Sunday.
“I’m not in a high-pressure situation because I’m going to go have dinner, and I’m so good with a knife and fork now that I don’t feel any pressure at all,” he said, trying to keep the mood light.