Westy throws down the gauntlet

Lee Westwood has taken a big step towards regaining his World No 1 status at the Barclay’s Scottish Open.

Lee Westwood took an important step towards regaining his World No 1 status in Thursday’s first round of the Barclay’s Scottish Open.

But he is going to have to look sharp.

Luke Donald, the fellow Englishman and 2010 Ryder Cup hero he hopes to replace on top of the World Ranking list, is right behind him after also having a good first day.

Westwood, currently the World No 2, opened his account on a drizzly day at the impressive new Castle Stuart golf Links near Inverness with a sparkling 7-under 65 to share the first round lead with Chilean surprise package Mark Tullo, who shrugged away a run of missed cuts to match Westwood’s 65.

The duo are one shot ahead of Swede Peter Hanson, South Africa George Coetzee and Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen, who have all featured strongly on European Tour leaderboard in the past month or two and could once more be major contenders this week.

But the man Westwood will likely be worrying most about is Donald who was one of 15 players to shoot an opening 5-under 67 to be two shots off the pace – and, in doing so, made a statement that he won’t easily be relieved of his crown

Tied with Donald at 5-under is Colin Montgomerie who is bidding to snatch a place in The Open.

Montgomerie carded a promising 67 although the Scot, who matched the score of playing partner Donald, was disappointed not to be even better placed to clinch a 22nd consecutive appearance at the British Open.

“Any time you play with the world number one and equal him around the course you’ve done okay, but I should have done better,” the eight-times European number one said.

“When I made eagle I thought I was on to something but then I bogeyed two of the easiest holes. To miss the ninth (his 18th) fairway was a disaster. The thing’s 110 yards wide. I had to hit my second shot backwards.

“I’m disappointed but then if I wasn’t disappointed, I’d give up. I’m here to do well — I’m here to win.”

The 48-year-old needs to finish in the top five to have any chance of a slot in the British Open.

“It’s a long time 21 years playing in the Open, a whole career, a championship I love, one I’ve finished second in — I want to play again, I really do,” he said.

If Westwood, in the meantime, wants to head off next week to the 140th Open Championship as the new World No 1, he is going to have to win at Castle Stuart this week and, in the process beat Donald, the existing World No 1.

The last time Lee Westwood won the week before the Open he went to Royal Birkdale as joint favourite with Tiger Woods and appeared to run out of gas.

But, 13 years on from his two closing rounds of 78 there, Westwood could well have a chance to show he can do far better now – even win again.

The battle-hardened Englishman, perhaps golf’s current No 1 ‘nearly man’ when it comes to majors, believes he now knows enough about pressure to be in a position to welcome it.

“The more pressure I’m under this week the better,” Westwood told the media on Thursday after posting an eagle and six birdies.

“It’s a nice way to start the next two weeks. You’re never quite sure what to expect when you come to a course that you’ve never played on before.

“I did some nice work last week on the range and hit a lot of shots out there that I probably couldn’t have hit two or three weeks ago.”

When Phil Mickelson won the week before his Masters defence in April, many thought he had peaked too soon and had no reason to change their minds when he finished only 27th.

But Westwood has already won back-to-back in Indonesia and South Korea this season and, thinking back to what happened at the 1998 Open, he said: “I didn’t really know what was going on – I hadn’t really got into contention in the major championships.”

He certainly has now. He missed out on a play-off by one shot at the 2008 US Open and 2009 Open, then was runner-up to Mickelson at Augusta last year and to Louis Oosthuizen – albeit by seven strokes – in last July’s Open at St Andrews.

“I like playing the week before a major championship. I like having the pressure and making putts when you need to make them.”

He picked out a driver second to 12 feet on the 530-yard 12th – his third – and a two iron to four feet into the wind on the long 18th as shots that will boost his confidence for another tilt at a first major title down in Kent.

Tullo, a graduate from last season’s Challenge Tour, still has to qualify for the Open.

One spot is up for grabs to the leading non-exempt player this Sunday – providing he finishes in the top five and, if Tullo keeps making 10 birdies in every round, it should be in the bag for the 33-year-old.

The world number 232 can already boast of a victory over Rory McIlroy – at last year’s Egyptian Open.

Mickelson, looking to regain some of his lost form, managed only a one-over 73 and may even need a second-round 67 just to survive the halfway cut.

Playing partner Padraig Harrington, last year’s US Open winner Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose all had 69s, while two-time champion Ernie Els shot a 68.

Mickelson was not the worst of the American contingent “warming up” for the Open. Brandt Snedeker, who beat Donald in a play-off at Hilton Head in April, crashed to a 77 which included a nine on the long second.

The most remarkable round was that of Scot Marc Warren. He started with a triple-bogey seven, but then had seven successive birdies – one off the European Tour record – from the sixth and shot 67.