Golf / The Open Championship: Azinger game to restore Old Glory: Guy Hodgson looks at the Americans capable of reviving star-spangled rule

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The Independent Online
FIJI (one golfer, no majors) might argue otherwise but if it comes to turns the logical nationality of the winner of the 122nd Open Championship this week will be American. In the 1960s and 1970s the Stars and Stripes used to dominate this event; now, not for nothing is it referred to as Old Glory.

Since Tom Watson won 10 years ago only one American, Mark Calcavecchia, has sipped the victor's champagne from the 'auld claret jug' and instead of being home of the brave, the United States has fostered players with reputations of blowing up in this tournament. When the going has got tough the tough have nearly always been European or Australian.

At Muirfield last year John Cook took a five that could have been a three at the penultimate hole and then bogeyed the last to allow Nick Faldo to win by a stroke. At the same venue five years previously Paul Azinger had gone bogey, bogey over the same stretch to allow Faldo his first major. In between Payne Stewart and Fred Couples have been within touching distance of the Open trophy but let it slip away.

Which either points to lack of fibre in the Americans - a theory discounted by their continuing pre-eminence in the US Open and US PGA - or that they are due a win at Royal St George's. Particularly as, Faldo apart, the leading Europeans are either carrying injuries or heaving around weighty dents to their confidence.

Stewart, the winner of two majors in four years and second in the US Open at Baltusrol last month, fits the identikit picture of a potential American winner perfectly and there are counter- claims for Cook, Lee Janzen and John Daly. Yet if the wind blows and the ability to manoeuvre the ball along a low trajectory becomes a necessity, Azinger looms large in the picture.

At 6ft 2in the 33-year-old Floridian looms large almost everywhere even if his one-iron thin frame hardly constitutes him as mighty. Watson has picked him out as a potential winner here and so has Faldo, even though he has reservations about his ability to draw the ball. Only the man himself, it seems, is being coy about his chances.

'I've played too many good practice rounds and then woken up to find I have lost it to put myself forward as a contender,' he said. Conversely, he has served dress-rehearsal rubbish and gone on to win in the tournament proper and, pride and pocket apart, it worried him not a bit yesterday that he and Calcavecchia had to hand over pounds 200 each after a friendly match with Rocco Mediate and Janzen. His last stroke, a fluffed chip with a seven-iron from the green's apron, cost pounds 100 alone.

'They fleeced us,' he said. 'It was real competitive.' And none of the Americans is better qualified to judge, as Seve Ballesteros, who once described the US Ryder Cup team as '11 good guys and Paul Azinger', would testify.

An Azinger victory speech is likely to be combative, too, if his reaction to the Ryder Cup win - 'American pride is back. We went over and whipped the Iraqis and now we have won the Ryder Cup' - is a good example of the sensitivity of his thoughts.

The likelihood of that will depend on which Azinger arrives on the first tee at 8.05 this morning, as he has reached Sandwich experiencing a Dickensian best and worst of times. On seven occasions he has finished in the top three in America this season while two of his six missed cuts have come in the last three tournaments. 'I failed to make the weekend more times so far than in the two previous years put together,' he said. 'I can't explain it, I'm normally a consistent player, but I'll gladly take it if it means I'm in contention in the good weeks.'

In Britain it is his contention in the Open six years ago that has stuck in the mind. His, too. 'Sure I think about it,' he said. 'I wouldn't be human if I didn't. At the time I wasn't devastated because I reckoned I'd not been good enough to be exempt two years before and now I was close to winning it. Now it seems heart-breaking.

'Logically, I'm older and more experienced now, which should give me a better chance. The thing I've always aimed for in golf is longevity, because I reckon if I stay around enough the tournament victories will follow automatically.'

Azinger, 11 wins but no major, would accept any of the game's great prizes if it was collected on a crazy golf course on nearby Margate promenade but you suspect his preference would be an Open.

'I love this place,' he said, going against the American grain. 'Golf in Britain is so superior to anywhere else, it's the sort of course where golf was meant to be played. You have to use your imagination to make shots. In the US most of the time the decisions are made for you.'

As for the transatlantic challenge, Azinger enthused about Janzen and then came up with a new name. 'David Edwards has been completely overlooked,' he said. 'He has a brilliant short game and his length off the tee won't matter because the ball bounces for miles. At 100-1 he is a fantastic bet.'

David Leadbetter, Faldo's coach, and Ben Crenshaw echoed Azinger's enthusiasm for the man who won the Heritage Classic in April and if an unknown American did win it would have a precedent. Twelve years ago a player had to be persuaded to take the trip to Britain because he rated his chances as being obscure. A week later Bill Rogers was the Open champion.

Few suspected then that his victory would be an exception rather than the continuation of the star-spangled rule.

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