By Larry Fine
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Lee Westwood believes patience is a virtue, and the former world number one who turned 40 last month believes the best years of his golfing career could be yet to come.
The Englishman put his faith into practice at this week's Players Championship, biding his time before a late surge in the first round and a six-under 66 in Friday's second round that put him within two shots of the lead.
He said he was looking forward to weekend play at the TPC Sawgrass layout, home to what is widely regarded as golf's unofficial fifth major, which he expects will get firmer and more difficult to score on.
"A lot of patience is involved there. It will be sort of like a major championship-style mentality to go out there and play disciplined golf and not attack flags when they shouldn't be attacked and try to hit a lot of fairways, so you have to have a lot of control on your second shot," said Westwood.
"I enjoy that kind of golf. It's very rewarding if you play well."
Westwood, a brilliant ball-striker, has been one of world's most consistent big tournament players but has yet to win a major championship despite frequently contending.
He has three top 10s in the U.S. Open the last five years, including two third-place finishes and three top 10s in the last four Masters, including a tie for third and a runner-up showing.
Westwood has also been runner-up (2010) and tied for third (2009) in the last four British Opens and tied for third (2009) and eighth (2011) in the PGA Championship.
Often his short game has held him back.
That is why he took special pleasure in kick-starting his second round on the Stadium Course by pitching in for eagle on the par-five 11th, his second hole of the day.
He followed that with two birdies and was on his way.
"It's a big momentum thing if you pitch in. That's what's been missing from my game over the last couple years almost, having a few breaks," said Westwood.
"But I've worked hard on my short game, and I'm obviously getting it on line a little bit more than I used to do."
Westwood began his first round with 14 pars, patiently waiting for his chances despite a course record-tying 63 posted in the morning by little-known American Roberto Castro.
"Obviously you're under a little bit of pressure when you see nine-under on the board and you haven't shot yet," Westwood said. "But then again, you know there are good scores out there.
"So I played well through the first 14 holes, it just wouldn't happen for me.
"It's just a case of being patient. I was rewarded, a couple of nice shots at 15. I made birdie. Made a birdie at 16, and made a nice birdie at the last into 18 from about six feet."
He maintained the same approach on Friday and got better results.
"I played pretty much how I played yesterday, very solid, hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens. I haven't made a bogey yet this week," said Westwood.
Westwood, who showed his more daring side by deciding to grow a goatee after going a week without shaving after cutting his nose, lip and chin after diving into his swimming pool, said the success of other mature golfers had boosted his confidence.
"It's just a number, I don't feel any different," he said. "I'm prepared to keep working as hard as I've always worked.
"So many people play well now in their 40s. It's not just one person, there are loads of people. Phil (Mickelson) still plays great, (Angel) Cabrera nearly won the Masters, Darren (Clarke) and Ernie (Els) won the last two Opens after 40, too.
"I think the way that players look after themselves a little bit more now with probably the exception of Darren - he'll like me for that - we can play a lot longer."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)