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Saturday, June 14, 2008

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U.S. Open No Longer Daunting To Europeans

Jimenez Hunt
Miguel Angel Jimenez was in the hunt, but he he has a tall task to catch Tiger Woods. (Steve Gibbons/USGA)

By Thomas Hackett

San Diego – It’s one of those softball questions that sportswriters love to toss at golfers: “What would it mean to you to win the U.S. Open?”

For Americans, the answer is easy and automatic. “It’s our national championship,” they usually say, “so it would be huge.”

Maybe too huge, too meaningful, too daunting.

Foreign players may have a harder time answering the question, but in the last five Opens internationals haven’t had much trouble winning the championship. Not since 2003, when Jim Furyk won at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club has an American won the Open. The others have come from Argentina (Angel Cabrera), Australia (Geoff Ogilvy), New Zealand (Michael Campbell) and South Africa (Retief Goosen). By contrast, 20 years ago, Americans owned the event, winning 12 consecutive Opens from 1982-1993.

But for the fact that Tiger Woods owns a one-stroke lead going into the final round, just looking at the percentages, a betting man might want to wager that the trend could continue at Torrey Pines. Thirteen of the leading 20 players who started the third round Saturday owned a non-U.S. passport. Going into Sunday, of the 12 players within six shots of Woods’ 3-under 210 lead, eight hail from overseas.

Leading the pack is England’s Lee Westwood, who is one stroke back of Woods. Unlike Woods, who has been brilliant but erratic, Westwood is the only player without an over-par round nor a double bogey, shooting 70-71-70 on the 7,643-yard layout. He has had 11 more pars than Woods and six fewer bogeys or worse, but he also hasn’t racked up the birdies or crowd-rousing eagles that Woods has. Yet his steady play is the kind of stuff that usually wins Opens.

“I am always quite happy to go out there and grind out pars,” he said after the second round. “That’s the game for the weekend. Patience is the name of the game at the U.S. Open. It can be fairly boring but you just have to go out there and grind out pars.”

After another ho-hum 1-under-par round Saturday, Westwood was happy to be whistling the same boring tune. “I’m a fairly calm person and fairly level-headed, so I’ll just stick to my own game plan and try to keep doing the things I’m doing.”

Another two strokes back is Ogilvy, who held steady two years ago as the rest of the field fell apart on Winged Foot’s 72nd hole.

The reasons for the foreign ascendancy are many. Golf is now global in ways unimaginable 30 years ago, when it was still mainly played in English-speaking countries. Korean golfers didn’t blanket the leader boards at LPGA Tour events (for that matter, neither did Swedish or Mexican golfers). The top golfers on the PGA Tour rarely flew halfway around in the world to play in suburban Shanghai or Dubai. The only Fijian athlete at all familiar to Americans would have been Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, a professional wrestler.

But since the 1980s, the PGA Tour has been more welcoming of players from abroad, and so have American college golf programs. Englishman Luke Donald, now nine back after starting Saturday three off Stuart Appleby’s lead, starred at Northwestern in suburban Chicago, where he won an NCAA title and now makes his home. The Swede Carl Pettersson, who has been in sync with Donald every step of the way, played for North Carolina State and still lives in Raleigh. Colombian Camilo Villegas, who starts the final round at two over par, stuck around Gainesville, Fla., after graduating from the University of Florida. He also was the 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up to current PGA Tour pro Hunter Mahan.

So it’s not as if these guys are out of their element. Most have thoroughly “Americanized” their games. Donald, for instance, believes his game is best suited to the U.S. Open while he has struggled at the British Open. “I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s just to do with a lack of practice on links golf,” he said Friday, after posting his second even-par 71 round of the championship.

Nevertheless, British players less used to the lush rough of a U.S. Open setup and thought to be less adept at wedge play, have not faired particularly well. Not since 1970, when Tony Jacklin won at Hazeltine National, has a European won here. (Ironically, Americans have cleaned up at the one “overseas” major, winning seven of the last 10 British Opens.)

Earlier in the week, Vijay Singh had suggested that perhaps the British players weren’t putting in enough practice on the range to contend at the U.S. Open. Paul Casey, for one, took exception to that. “Overall, the British guys are working very hard,” he said at the end of a rough third-round 76. “We have the desire and the hunger. I think what we need is for guys to break through…. We have a lot of great players coming through.”

Indeed, along with Westwood, three other Englishmen – Oliver Wilson, Robert Dinwiddie and Donald – start the final round with 10 strokes of Woods.

“I assume we’re just getting more and more used to it,” says Lewine Mair, a veteran golf writer for the London Telegraph of the recent presence of British players atop U.S. Open leader boards. “We’ve got a lot of players from Britain who have played five or six Opens now, and they’re beginning to get the hang of it. They have a lot of experience here. Our [European] Tour is quite strong, but there’s much more money over here.”

So maybe that’s it. National pride is a giant motivator. But a $1,350,000 payday may be an even bigger one.

On the other hand, the foreign players also have a whole other set of concerns. The lanky Swede Robert Karlsson was thrilled to finish the first two rounds only one stroke off the lead. For one thing, it meant that he would be playing Saturday with Woods. But there was the added benefit of a late starting time that American players might not fully appreciate.

It meant that he’d get to watch Sweden playing Spain in the Euro 2008 soccer championships, a game broadcast at 9 a.m. PDT.

“So that’s good,” he said, even if his 4-over 75 in the third round wasn’t.

Thomas Hacket is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usopen.com


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