Golf: Celts fight back from the fringe

Peter Corrigan sees an in-form Welsh pair prepare to turn the tide of Open history
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DAVID PARK has had the sort of pre-Open that most new professionals encounter only in their imaginations. Making the most of what little limelight has been left unfilched by the Spanish phenomenon Sergio Garcia, Park has eased himself towards the gates of Carnoustie in a smooth and unaffected manner that reeks with promise of even better days to come.

On the fantasy scale, what Park has been experiencing is a mere dream compared to the wild hallucinations Garcia has been living through, but there is a difference. Garcia is a 19-year-old prodigy attached to a meteor while the 25-year-old Park asks you to remember that although he has arrived with a bang it was preceded by years of successful but unnoticed toil.

This puts him almost in the same bracket as another Welshman who has been cornering some unaccustomed attention recently. At 32, Phil Price has been labouring long at the coal-face before emerging as a European Tour player to be reckoned with. Since The Open tends to bestow its favours on players of longer establishment at the top, neither is likely to be in the upper parts of many selection lists.

However, after the near-misses at Royal Birkdale last year of the American stranger Brian Watts and the boyish amateur Justin Rose, we should be less inclined to dismiss the unknown and the untried from consideration.

But what should attract Park and Price extra notice this week is the fact that they are providing Wales with a representation unprecedented in modern times. This will entitle them to the passionate, if impatient, following of their countrymen and, sadly, the depressing weight of Wales's historical inability to make a dent on this tournament. Not that the Welsh are alone in this particular wilderness.

When it comes to The Open, none of the Celtic tribes has anything to crow about. Even the Scots, who created this everlasting monument to the game's origins, have a coughingly embarrassing record. No true Scot has won the event since Willie Auchterlonie in 1893 - a fact that, unkindly, wipes out the successes of Sandy Lyle in 1985 and Tommy Armour in 1931.

Any country would be glad to embrace both as home wins but most Scots will swear dourly that, as in golf, only strict rules apply. Despite his pride in his rich Scottish blood, Lyle was born in Shrewsbury while Armour committed the error, if not the sin, of becoming a naturalised American before his victory. So they'd be grateful for anything but especially The Open. Hence the pressure on Colin Montgomerie to etch his name on the old claret jug so that at least one native-born Scot can register a win during the 20th century.

Montgomerie will be assisted in his task by a number of his stalwart countrymen, the principal amongst whom will be Sam Torrance and Andy Coltart. You can rely on Torrance being visible, but his best in 27 years of trying was fifth in 1981. The improving Coltart's top finish was joint- 20th in 1995.

Scotland's Celtic cousins can scarcely offer better records, although Ireland can at least boast one success this century. When Fred Daly won at Hoylake in 1947 it was the first and only Irish win in The Open, which is not an impressive total when you consider the number of excellent players they have produced. Sadly, this year's crop are not screaming with potential.

Darren Clarke, who tied for second place in 1997, is not at his best and two of his best fellow Irish prospects of recent years - Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, who together won the World Cup two years ago - have yet to qualify for this year's Open, as has the evergreen Eamon Darcy. The only Irishmen certain to be at Carnoustie with Clarke are another Tour veteran, Des Smyth, and the European amateur champion, Paddy Gribben.

Last, and in this context least, come the Welsh, who have never had an Open winner. They have had a few honourable near misses. Dai Rees was joint second to Ben Hogan at Carnoustie in 1953. Dave Thomas lost in a 36-hole play-off to Peter Thomson in 1958 and was joint second to Jack Nicklaus in 1966.

Their only major winner, Ian Woosnam, has not been a strong Open contender since the early Nineties and only now, with the advent of Price and Park, have the Welsh been able to muster a challenge that in any way could be termed concerted. Both are aware that they've suddenly acquired the extra baggage of their nation's attention.

"I've been enjoying the added interest. Welsh sportsmen do get a buzz from knowing their countrymen are behind them and I haven't felt it in the past as much as I do now," says Price, whose biggest advance has been in his self-belief. "One of the advantages in moving up slowly through the ranks is that you learn how to cope with the bad days. It is all very well being a meteoric riser but some of them don't know why they're so good. And when it goes wrong they don't know why, either. When you get there gradually I think you are better at taking the bad days in your stride."

Price hasn't met many bad days lately and that includes the US Open, in which he performed commendably over four tough days at Pinehurst. "I found it exhausting because every shot was a challenge but what pleased me was that I enjoyed it so much. They tell me that Carnoustie is going to be very difficult, too. Good, a hard course is a great equaliser and I'll be sure to take a good attitude out with me. This is a game of attitudes."

Park was born in London where his father, who comes from the Rhondda and his mother, from Pembroke, were teachers but he regards himself as utterly Welsh. He came up through the Welsh system and was a member of the sponsored group of young sportspeople called Elite Cymru. He hasn't had any trouble staying anchored to the floor during the few short bursts of exceptional activity that last week earned him the title of "Golfer of the Month". "It may seem as if I've suddenly arrived but it seems a natural progression to me," said Park. "I get a little tired but I put that down to all the media attention. I don't feel any pressure. I just go out and try to shoot a low score. I'm not regarding it as anything more complicated than that."