Belief in his game was thinning quickly for Lee Westwood after he missed the cut at the Masters in early April, then finished 74th a week later at the Heritage at 18-over-par 302. So the native of Worksop, England, decided to go home, rest and resume his livelihood on the more familiar setting of the European PGA Tour.

He took roughly a month off from tournament golf, devoting his time to other distractions such as snooker and his beloved Nottingham Forest Football Club. In his first tournament back, Westwood was shaky. He finished tied for 50th place at the Dunlop Masters after closing with bogeys on two of his last three holes during his final round.

Then came the resurgence at the Irish Open, where Westwood took fifth place and soared to 28th in the Order of Merit.

"Certainly, at the start of the year, I didn't play as good as I would have liked," Westwood said yesterday after his round of 66 at the Booz Allen Classic left him three shots behind Matt Gogel. "Went back to [the European tour where I] feel a little bit more comfortable. I played okay there, and I've managed to get some confidence to keep it going into this tournament this week. . . . [In Europe], I found a key to my swing that makes it feel a lot more solid."

Three consecutive birdies on his back nine went a long way toward validating the upswing in Westwood's play. The run commenced at the 407-yard par-4 fifth -- Westwood began his round at No. 10 -- with a drive that settled along the right edge of the fairway. He used a pitching wedge to land his ball within one foot of the pin.

Westwood played aggressively at No. 6, a 544-yard par 5 with water guarding the right and front of the green. His drive traveled 310 yards and came to rest in the right center of the fairway. That left him in ideal position to go for the green, and he chose a 3-iron for his approach.

Westwood made a fluid pass through the ball, sending it arcing 224 yards toward the green and landing 35 yards from the cup. Two putts later, he stood 4 under par.

At the 174-yard par-3 seventh, Westwood eased his 7-iron to 18 feet, from where his steady putter finished the job.

"You know, I've hit the ball solidly today, and it's paid dividends and I rolled a few putts in, which I haven't been doing for the first part of the year," said Westwood, who took 27 putts in his round.

Westwood was especially proficient with his putter from long range. At No. 12, he made a 40-footer for birdie. At No. 13, his 25-footer was good for another birdie.

His putter also saved him from potential disaster at the par-4 No. 10, where Westwood pushed his 5-iron into the water.

"Just got it slightly wrong," Westwood said of his errant approach. "Chipped and putted. Made a good 10-footer for bogey there.

"The last couple of weeks since the Irish Open, I've putted well. Today I putted good, so hopefully I can keep that going."

Lee Westwood lines up a putt on the ninth hole -- his last -- before finishing 5 under during the opening round of the Booz Allen Classic. He's three shots behind the leader, Matt Gogel.