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Can a European Repeat in the U.S. Open?
Last month, Monty (aka Colin Montgomerie) said he could see a European winning the U.S. Open . . . over another European. Last week, the former Ryder Cup captain and five-time major championship runner-up took it a step further, telling Britain's Daily Mail it was possible his fellow Continentals will take up three of the first four spots at Congressional CC.
Thanks to numerous opportunities for practice, golf fans have learned to take the big Scot's bold statements with a pinch of salt. But let's not forget, we aren't quite a year removed from the last European one-two in the year's second major, and that a one-two which no one could have predicted.
Indeed, if Graeme McDowell can win the U.S. Open, you've got to think half a dozen other similarly talented Europeans can. And if Gregory Havret has the game to finish runner-up, well, with all due respect to the three-time Tour-winning Frenchman, you'd be hard-pressed to find a European in the field that wasn't capable of coming in second. Given the strength of European golf right now, Montgomerie's statement is actually perfectly plausible.
But then, if Gary Player were to suggest three of those top four spots might go to South Africans, or Greg Norman predict three Aussies would finish similarly high up, or Tom Watson put forward a case for a trio of his fellow Americans, you'd have no trouble picturing the elder statesmen's preferred outcomes. And, though you might feel slightly less inclined to lend Isao Aoki an ear if the great Japanese player claimed the Asians would dominate, you couldn't ignore the fact K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang have the skills and temperament necessary to perform at the very highest level, and that Ryo Ishikawa and Seung Yul Noh probably aren't that far behind.
So open is this year's U.S. Open that the three players sharing favorite-status with most bookmakers - Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, and Phil Mickelson - are being offered at anything between 11-1 and 14-1, which seems incredibly generous when you consider it wasn't all that long ago Tiger Woods started the game's biggest events at even-money. Odds like that indicate the bookies are about as clueless as the rest of us in trying to pick a winner but, on recent form at least, Donald certainly appears the shrewdest bet.
The 33-year-old Englishman has finished in the top 10 in his last 10 events (eight in the U.S., two in Europe), capturing a World Golf Championship and the European Tour's flagship tournament in the process. At the Accenture Matchplay in Arizona at the end of February, he needed just 89 holes to see off six opponents, and at Wentworth in England two weeks ago he beat countryman Westwood in a playoff for the BMW PGA Championship, thus solidifying his position at the top of the world rankings.
His PGA Tour stats, besides the being first in earnings, FedEx Cup points, and scoring average, look very much like those of a U.S. Open contender. Donald is 12th in driving accuracy, sixth in putting using the Tour's new "Strokes Gained" measurement, sixth in scrambling, first in scrambling from the rough, and first in bounce-back - significant at a tournament like the U.S. Open where players will probably be required to do a lot of bouncing back.
At 7,574 yards from the championship tees, the Devereux Emmet-designed and Rees Jones-redesigned Blue Course will be the second longest U.S. Open venue ever after the 2008 version of Torrey Pines (7,643 yards) and prove quite a handful for the slightly-built Donald, who's averaging just under 280 yards off the tee (153rd on the PGA Tour). But Mike Davis, the USGA's chief executive and course set-up mastermind, surely won't have it play to its full yardage on any of the four days of competition. And, while length is always an asset on any course, eight of the last 16 U.S. Open winners have been ranked outside the top 25 in driving distance, and six of the 11 players that finished inside the top 10 and ties last year were outside the top 50.
Donald and Westwood will play together the first two rounds alongside the world's third-ranked player, Martin Kaymer, the only one of the group that owns a major title - last year's PGA Championship, and the only one without multiple wins this year. In January, the 26-year-old German got his season off to a flying start with an eight-stroke victory in Abu Dhabi - his third win there in four years. Since then, however, the former No. 1 has done little to suggest he's ready for a second major title, missing the cut for the third straight year at Augusta National and finishing 10 shots out of the Donald-Westwood playoff at Wentworth. Kaymer is too efficient an operator to be down for long though, and if he and his playing partners play to their potential, it could very well be these three that make up Montgomerie's great European triumvirate.
Beyond them, Europe's most likely challenger may well be 41-year-old Swede Robert Karlsson, who lost in a playoff at the FedEx St Jude Classic on Sunday for the second straight year, and who has four top 10s at the majors, including a tie for fourth in the 2008 U.S. Open.
You also shouldn't perhaps count out the defending champion, despite his stumbling to a couple of very strange rounds when in contention this season: a 79 in the final round of the Players Championship, and an 81 in the third round of the Wales Open, rounds which did nothing to suggest his swing or mind are even close to where they were at Pebble Beach 12 months ago. Nor should we forget McDowell's fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, who will be eager to show the world how little a back-nine 43 on Masters Sunday has affected his mental fortitude and rise to greatness.
And how about World No. 76, Sergio Garcia? The 31-year-old Spaniard, who qualified for the championship in Tennessee last week, must have fond memories of Congressional, having won the Booz Allen Classic there in 2005 with weekend rounds of 66 and 65.
No one can be entirely sure where Garcia's mind or what his motivation is right now, however, perhaps not even him. But there's no doubt he still strikes the ball better than most of his contemporaries, and that if it wasn't for his perpetually inadequate putting he wouldn't still be looking for a first major title after 46 tries.
Europe will certainly be hoping to make its presence felt this week, and a number of its 35 representatives are in decent-to-good major-winning form. Strong challenges are bound to come from Players champion Choi, five-time U.S. Open runner-up Mickelson, Memorial winner Steve Stricker, and a host of others.
But now that McDowell has laid waste to all the flimsy theories given for Europe's failure to win since Tony Jacklin's victory in 1970, there's no reason why the Blue and Yellow can't make it two in a row. Monty, for one, will expect nothing less.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.