Golf: Lawrie lives up to great expectation

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The Independent Online
IN THE immediate aftermath of his surprising victory in The Open Championship, Paul Lawrie vowed that his sudden triumph would not change him. In his first competitive round since adding to his collection of silverware, on the opening day of the Smurfit European Open at the K Club, Lawrie lived up to his claim. His 67 matched exactly his closing score at Carnoustie.

To add to the sense of deja vu, there was a moment early in the morning when the two names on the leaderboard were those of Lawrie and Jean Van de Velde. "I had a wee chuckle on the 15th," Lawrie said. "It's amazing how these things work out."

Proving that you cannot keep a good man down for long, Van de Velde, playing with Colin Montgomerie in the group behind Lawrie, matched Lawrie's three early birdies in a row from the 12th. But by the time the Frenchman got round to the eighth, his obsession with exploring the waterways of Europe became too strong.

The short par four runs along the banks of the River Liffey - no mere creek this - and Van de Velde got burned again when he hooked his two- iron from the tee into water flowing fast towards Dublin and the Irish Sea. There was no question of going in search of this one. "I would have needed a scuba-diving kit or a submarine," Van de Velde said. "It was way too deep."

Once again, however, The Open runner-up holed a good putt on the green, for a double- bogey six, and he then birdied the last for a 70, two under par. He was four behind the New Zealander Michael Campbell, whose 66 gave him a one-shot lead over a group of players which included Lawrie and Montgomerie.

"Whatever happens today," Montgomerie declared, "this day belongs to Paul Lawrie. His 67 was a fantastic effort. He has had a very busy week and people were anxious to find out what sort of reaction he'd have, so all credit goes to him. It is very difficult to focus on what you are trying to do coming off a win like that. It was easy for me today but then I didn't win The Open last week. Paul did, so very well done to him."

The setting could not have been more different from Carnoustie. The course is of the parkland variety, designed by Arnold Palmer and soft and rewarding. There was no danger of breaking your wrists in the rough, there was not a breath of wind and the sun was shining. "I felt very comfortable," Lawrie said. "It was nice to get back to work. I hit a lot of good shots and made a few putts. It was a beautiful sunny day. It doesn't come away better than that."

Showing no particular nerves as he was announced on the first tee - or in this case the 10th as the Scot was playing the course the wrong way round - as The Open champion, Lawrie began his round with a gallery of less than 40, though it was not yet 8.30am.

More spectators soon arrived as he went to the turn in 32, as did Van de Velde and Montgomerie, and not even back-to-back bogeys at the fourth and fifth unsettled him. Rather than being a burden, the early signs are that the 30-year-old from Aberdeen may grow into the role of Open champion.

Lawrie had said it would be a challenge to live up to everyone's expectations but he far exceeded them. Quoted at 50-1 before the tournament, his odds were rapidly dropped to 12-1 after yesterday's round.

"My attitude has been a little dodgy in the past but I have been working on it over the last six months," he said. "My attitude was first class today and the [three] bogeys didn't register with me at all.

"I accepted the dropped shots and just tried to make a good swing on the next tee, which is the way all the great players do it. I felt fresh after a week off. The Open was an unbelievable experience but it has got to be half-forgotten about. I'll never forget what happened at Carnoustie, but the most important thing is to be mentally ready this week."

It helped being paired with two old campaigners in Mark James, the Ryder Cup captain, and one of his deputies, Sam Torrance. The only talk about Boston in September, however, was when Lawrie asked if he could have James's home telephone number. Explained Lawrie: "My wife is panicking about what evening wear to bring and wants to speak to Jane [James's wife]."

Van de Velde admitted to feeling "shattered" by the end of his round, an understandable reaction to the strain of the last fortnight, but he got a fine reception at the completion of his round. "I thought it would be a good effort by Jean just to make the cut," Montgomerie said.

Was there much conversation with the Frenchman? "You'd like to talk about the first 71 holes at Carnoustie but you can't without mentioning the 72nd, so we just talked about today and the future."

Scores, Digest, Page 29