Lee Westwood has built his Augusta game plan — is this finally his year?

Lee Westwood has never won a major championship despite being close enough to taste the Masters title twice.

The first was in 2010 when he finished second behind Phil Mickelson — Mickelson’s third win — and again in 2016 when Danny Willett won his first major. In both tournaments he trailed the winner by three shots.

The 47-year-old Westwood put those experiences to good use Thursday at Augusta National, carding 4-under 68 to walk off the course T-4 with Louis Oosthuizen, Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and Tiger Woods. The group sits three shots behind current pacesetter Paul Casey at 7 under and one shot behind runner-up Webb Simpson after the first round’s early wave.

Westwood, who began his round on No. 1, was cruising on the front nine, reaching the turn at 5 under. His sole blemish of the day was a bogey on the par-3 12th after his tee shot landed in the greenside bunker. The Englishman had an opportunity for a 20-foot birdie putt on 18 to tie Simpson at second, but settled for par after his first putt went wide right. Had Westwood made birdie on 18, he would have tied his lowest round at Augusta National (67 in 2010, 2011 and 2012).

The former World. No. 1 is playing that well in comparison to his 66 previous rounds at the famed golf club.

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“I played well on the front. Missed a couple of putts. Missed from six feet on 4 and about 12 feet straight up the hill on the first so I gave myself a lot of chances,” Westwood said to Sky Sports. “I was really close to the hole a lot. I played well around the back nine, just without getting a few breaks and carrying on the 5 under and maybe shooting 7, 8, 9 under so I’ve been playing well recently and I continued to do so today and looking forward to tomorrow if we get out and hopefully the weekend.”

Westwood finished the day hitting 16-of-18 greens and 11-of-14 fairways.

The two-time PGA Tour winner has competed twice on Tour this season. In the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he finished T-13 at 7 over. And at last week’s Vivint Houston Open, he missed the cut. Since the U.S. Open, Westwood has competed in four European Tour events, finishing T-19 (Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open), T-18 (BMW PGA Championship), T-14 (Scottish Championship) and T-30 (Italian Open).

Lee Westwood walks past the leaderboard at the 11th green during the first round of the 2020 Masters Tournament. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

While playing solid golf this fall helps Westwood heading into the first-ever November Masters, the most evident reason he came out strong Thursday is experience.

In fact, experience at Augusta National was helping a few players during the first round. Westwood is one of three players over 40 in the top eight after the morning wave along with Casey and Woods. Westwood has competed in 18 Masters tournaments, notching six top-10 finishes and making 15 cuts over the past two decades.

“I don’t know. I found (Augusta National) really tough at the start. The first few years playing, it was tough to see a good score on this golf course, you know. I played well, I thought 71, 72 was a really good score,” Westwood said. “And then I started to get it and realize where you needed to hit it and where you needed to keep away from and I’ve gradually built my game plan up over the years to where I go out there now and I can see a score.”

Westwood, whose girlfriend Helen Storey is on the bag this week, did not qualify for the Masters in 2018 (his first time missing the event in 13 years) and he missed it again in 2019, but qualified for a spot in this year’s tournament with top-4 finish at Royal Portrush.

Thursday’s round was a testament that two missed years can’t trip up a Masters veteran.

“It’s nice to be back,” Westwood said. “I’ve obviously played well here in the past but missed the last two, and you know, nobody likes sitting at home watching this tournament when you know you could be playing in it. So it’s good to be back and it’s good to start with a nice first round and play myself into the tournament.”

If Westwood were to improve on his first-round performance through the weekend, it would be his first major and first win on the PGA Tour since the 2010 St. Jude Classic. The 25-time European Tour winner and two-time PGA Tour winner last emerged victorious at the 2020 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last January.

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