Golf: Americans are on the march: John Hopkins bears witness to the major invasion of Muirfield by a resurgent United States force

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The Independent Online
IN THE Open last year it was the Australians who nailed their colours to the mast. At the start, no one gave a XXXX for their chances. Yet by halfway, when every other name on the leaderboard seemed to come from Down Under, an Australian victory was on the cards. And so it proved when Ian Baker-Finch won by two strokes from his countryman Mike Harwood.

This year the resurgent nation is the United States. In the equivalent week last year they held one major championship - Payne Stewart and the US Open won at Hazletine. Now they hold three, and if an American wins here today they will hold all four major titles for the first time since 1982.

Nick Faldo may be leading after a record-breaking start but there are four Americans among the leading six players trailing him, and six in the top ten. From John Cook to Steve Pate, Ray Floyd to Donny Hammond, the Americans had an impressive number of challengers (if not the most impressive performers) at the head of the field when the cut fell on Friday.

The largest American invasion group of recent years would have been larger still if Scott Simpson, Larry Nelson and Fuzzy Zoeller had not withdrawn. As it happened, their task force comprised 37 exempt players and seven men who won through to the Open via the pre-qualifying rounds.

The performance of the Americans in the Open is mirrored in their rise in the Sony rankings, which may be the most criticised form of ranking yet devised for golfers, yet nevertheless remains the one that is most widely-used.

Twelve months ago there were three Americans among the world's top ten players - Stewart (fifth) Paul Azinger (seventh) and Fred Couples (eighth.) One year later Couples is ranked as the world's best player, Davis Love III, Azinger and Tom Kite join him in the top ten and Mark O'Meara, Floyd, Bruce Lietzke, Chip Beck, Cook and Corey Pavin feature among the top 20.

What is surprising is that the men breathing down Faldo's neck are not the Americans of the moment, Love, three-times a winner on the US tour this year, and Couples, the reigning US Masters' champion. Almost inseparable off the course, they were playing one behind the other on it. Neither started terribly well or particularly badly - a 73, two over par, for Love and a 70 for Couples.

The power of Love was of little use in the second round. He ballooned to a 77. Couples went one worse, a 78, and missed the cut at the Open for the first time in eight appearances. It was also one of the few cuts he has missed in any major championships. They left Muirfield to the sound of screeching car tyres. 'All of which goes to show,' said one somewhat crabby American journalist, 'that playing well for a few months at home doesn't make them world-class players.'

On the eve of the Open, Love spoke of the tournament's importance and of his surprise that some of his countrymen chose to forego it. 'To me the British Open is the biggest tournament in the world,' he said. 'Our own national championship is important and has lots of tradition but it's only two-thirds as old as the British - we have guys who are exempt and don't go to the Open. If you're exempt (from pre-qualifying) and don't go, that's like turning down an invitation to the Masters. It's your loss.'

So it was left to men like Cook, Pate and Hammond, seven Open appearances between them, to join Floyd in his 18th Open at the head of the field. Again and again Pate has found himself surprised at the whole paraphernalia that surrounds golf in Britain and, particularly, the Open. And it has undoubtedly drawn the best out of him.

'The golf courses over here are different to the ones we play back home,' said Pate, in not the most blindingly original remark that has ever been made - but you knew what he meant. 'And so are the crowds. How many times do you play when they have crowds like this on a Thursday?'

Cook's game has been coming to the boil all year. A solid fourth round of 75 at windswept Pebble Beach last month moved him from 28th to 12th place in the US Open and confirmed he was right to enter the Open. 'I had got to the point where I needed to do something in a major championship,' said the likeable Cook. 'I knew I was playing well enough to do well.'

Another reason why Cook has been playing well has been his familiarity with the made-up shots that are required so often on courses in the British Isles. 'It's a little adjustment,' says Cook. 'I have always thought myself a decent wind player because I can keep the ball down or hit it up. I can hit some different looking shots. It isn't foreign to me to hit a three iron 145 yards or a nine 175 yards.'

The drive for success outside, as well as within, his own shores is what has driven Floyd, now nearly 50, on and on and on. He's like a man powered by a Duracell battery. He keeps going where others wilt. 'You don't get called a world-class player by staying at home,' says Floyd, who is playing the best golf of his career. 'I like playing outside the US. I like the challenge. You can't call yourself a complete player unless you can cope with different courses around the world.'

As he has proved this week.