Golf: Montgomerie plans to end the drought

US Open: Strong European contingent can challenge dominance of Duval and Woods
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The Independent Online
EITHER THE officials of the US Golf Association have gone soft, like the greens on Pinehurst's No 2 course after more rain yesterday, or they have finally realised that not every venue for their national championship needs to be set up in identical fashion.

The 99th US Open promises to be different from the norm and the usual collars of rough around the greens are not the only things missing. So too, remarkably, are the constant stream of complaints against which the second major of the year is regularly played out.

"That's too bad," said Jack Nicklaus, the four-time champion. "I used to love listening to other players gripe. `The rough is too high'. Check him off the list'. `The greens are too fast'. Check him off. You just check guys off as they complain, because they complain themselves right out of this championship. But this year you're going to have so many guys that have a chance to win."

Nicklaus, at 59 and having undergone hip replacement surgery earlier this year, will not be one of them. But his assessment is spot on. Like the fairways, this championship is more wide open than usual.

"The way the course is set up brings a lot more people into the mix," said David Duval, the world No 1. Duval, still looking for his first major championship, managed a second full practice round yesterday despite the tape on his right thumb and forefinger protecting the burns he received while making a cup of coffee last week.

"It's nice to be presented with new challenges as opposed to what we're typically used to," Duval added. "I think it is going to demand the players to be very precise and to think a lot more." Expecting rounds to take over five hours and the players' brains to overheat in the high southern temperatures, absent in practice thanks to the rain, the USGA decided to start play as early as 6.30 in the morning.

The word locally is that a European could win for the first time since Tony Jacklin in 1970. They may be right but it will have more to do with the fact that there are 16 playing - headed by the Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie - than the course. Although No 2, with its long funnels of pines, resembles some of those in Surrey and Berkshire, and that this Sandhills region produces similar golfing turf to the Melbourne sandbelt, Donald Ross's course is a one off.

"There are a lot of good courses designed by Scots," said Montgomerie, "and this is one of them. But I don't think there is any course like this with 18 upturned saucers for greens. It has been too long, really, that a European or British golfer has won this championship and it is a matter of walking through the door when it is half ajar and not finishing second."

Montgomerie, who has been close to lifting the championship cup three times before, admitted to being surprised when he arrived.

"I don't want the rough to be five inches high, I'd want it five feet high," said the straight-driving Scot. But he was not about to slip into moaning mode.

"This still feels very much like a US Open to me," Montgomerie said. "Just because the fairways are four or five yards wider than usual, it does not mean they are wide. All I'll be trying to do is hit the fairways and hit the greens and stay patient. That will give me enough birdies chances to hole a few of them. My caddie was funny. On every hole he said: `Middle of the green is OK'. He said that 18 times.

"But what this course does is bring the possibility of a win for a player like Olazabal. He may not hit the ball as straight off the tee but he can use his enormous talent and imagination around the greens."

When the Spaniard was asked whether his head or his heart was his best asset, Ollie turned in profile and pointed to his nose. He added that it took a lot of both heart and mental strength to win his second Masters title in April. There is no doubt the 33-year-old has a sniff of becoming the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to capture the first two majors of the year. "I am still concerned about my driving," Olazabal said, "but less concerned than if there was five inches of rough and the fairways were 20 yards wide."

Olazabal has never been better than eighth in a US Open. Phil Mickelson, another magician around the greens, may have a better chance than usual but, more than his 28th birthday yesterday, the imminent birth of his first child may be weighing on his mind. Tiger Woods could be another to take advantage of the set up to claim his second major title.

While Montgomerie has won two of his last four outings Woods has won his last two, at the TPC of Europe in Germany and the Memorial. All the work he has done with his coach, Butch Harmon, would appear to be playing off. The sight of Woods with a three-wood in his hands will become familiar this week, even around the greens.

One of the fascinations of the week will be seeing players trying to get up and down from off the greens. All manner of clubs will be used, from three and five-woods to sand and lob wedges as well as the putter.

Flexibility may be the key. Montgomerie, however, has his own game plan. "A three-wood for a shot of 10 yards, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he said. "I will be putting a lot. A bad putt always beats a bad chip."

PINEHURST CARD

Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par

1 404 4 10 610 5

2 447 4 11 453 4

3 335 4 12 447 4

4 566 5 13 383 4

5 482 4 14 436 4

6 222 3 15 202 3

7 398 4 16 489 4

8 485 4 17 191 3

9 179 3 18 446 4

Out 3,518 35 In 3,657 35

Total: 7,175yds; Par 70

US OPENERS: THE FIVE EUROPEANS MAKING THEIR DEBUTS AT PINEHURST

PHILIP PRICE

The only Welshman in the field after Ian Woosnam failed to earn an exemption. Finishing 15th on the Order of Merit last year secured the 32-year-old from Pontypridd's first trip to a US major. Price's assessment of Pinehurst No 2 was "like nothing I have ever seen before." Joe Durant and Jim Carter are his playing partners for the first two days.

PATRICK SJOLAND

Impressed at the World Matchplay in San Diego, reaching the third round, but missed the cut at the Masters.The 28-year-old Swede's renowned pitching ability could be key. Has the plum draw of being paired with the former champions Tom Kite and Tom Watson. Plays minus his spleen after a car crash seven years ago which left him in a coma for a week.

MATHIAS GRONBERG

Married his American girlfriend last Friday in New Jersey and the couple are spending their honeymoon in Pinehurst, along with both sets of families. The 29-year-old Swede, who lives in Monaco, won the European Open to finish 10th on the money list and earn an exemption for the US Open. Paired with Paul Azinger and Billy Mayfair for the first two rounds.

SVEN STRUVER

Takes over from Bernhard Langer as the German representative after winning the European Masters last year. Missed six cuts in a row before finishing 10th in the Volvo PGA. The son of a golf professional from Hamburg, the 31-year-old Struver is currently 13th in the Ryder Cup standings. Paired with Andrew Magee and Jeff Gallagher.

GABRIEL HJERTSTEDT

An American-based Swede who won the Tucson Open in February to put him in line for a wild card for the Ryder Cup. The 27-year-old Hjertstedt grew up in Australia but failed on the European Tour when a misaligned jaw went undiagnosed for a year, causing him to suffer panic attacks. Partners Steve Lowery and Steve Flesch today and tomorrow.

TODAY'S SELECTED TEE-OFF TIMES

US unless stated; all times BST

12:20 H Sutton, J Nicklaus, C Strange; 12:30 D Duval, C Franco (Par), P Mickelson; 12:40 J M Olazabal (Sp), T Lehman, N Price (Zim); 12:50 J Sluman, C Montgomerie (GB), V Singh (Fiji); 13:10 S Torrance (GB), F Zoeller, J Haas; 13:30 P Price (GB), J Durant, J Carter; 13:40 J Parnevik (Swe), S Jones, S Hoch; 13:50 M Gronberg (Swe), B Mayfair, P Azinger; 14:00 N Faldo (GB), B Watts, F Couples; 14:20 M A Jimenez (Sp), M Calcavecchia, S Cink; 14:40 E Els (SA), S Elkington (Aus), J Cook; 15:00 G Hjertstedt (Swe), S Lowery, S Flesch; 15:50 S Struver (Ger), J Gallagher, A Magee; 16:40 G Norman (Aus), J Leonard, D Love; 16:50 T Woods, L Westwood (GB), C Pavin; 17:00 L Janzen, *H Kuehne, M O'Meara; 17:20 P-U Johansson (Swe), C Perry, C Parry (Aus); 17:50 D Clarke (GB), J Furyk, J Daly; 18:10 T Bjorn (Den), J Huston, F Funk; 18:20 P Baker (GB), B Glasson, M Brooks; 18:40 P Sjoland (Swe), T Kite, T Watson.

* denotes amateur

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