Golf: The Open: Lomond's bonnie banker

In-form American provides irresistible evidence for this week's major defence policy
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The Independent Online
In a replica one-two finish from last year's Open at Lytham, excepting joint runner-up Mark McCumber whose injury problems have not allowed him to travel to Scotland, Tom Lehman beat Ernie Els to win the Gulfstream World Invitational. If his victory is the perfect manner for the defending champion to head for Royal Troon, then a number of the challengers for his crown are feeling content, too.

Lehman was briefly caught by his nearest neighbour overnight, Pierre Fulke, when he made what was only his second bogey of the week at the third. After that the American compiled five birdies in his 67 to win by five strokes from Els.

"When you're being chased by Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Steve Jones, the list goes on. There's always a bit of anxiety, but my birdies at seven, eight and nine got me going in the right direction," Lehman said after being handed the trophy by the Duke of York. Now for following Tom Watson as the last man to bring back the Open trophy and then take it away again. "It would be nice. Any time you go into a major in your best form, you have to be confident."

On another day conducive to low scoring, Els, the US Open champion, shot a 66 while his countryman Retief Goosen established a new course record with a 62 to finish third. A little way down the leaderboard, with the upcoming week in mind, Colin Montgomerie shot 67, as did Ian Woosnam, and there were 68s from Nick Faldo, Payne Stewart and Greg Norman.

Lehman had said on Friday night that it would be fun to see someone shoot a 59, as long as the American still won the tournament. He was thinking of Els, but it was another South African, Goosen, who looked like breaking the magical 60 barrier.

The French Open winner of two weeks ago bogeyed the first hole, but from there collected seven birdies and an eagle in the next eleven holes. That put him eight under for his round and on the leaderboard. His driving, in contrast to earlier in the week when he suffered a temporary loss of feel with his game, was so good that the only fairway he missed was by a mere couple of feet at the 18th. His iron play was also spot on and, after more overnight rain, he took up the invitation to fire straight at the pins. His longest putt of the day came at the 17th where he holed from 20 feet to edge a stroke inside the record mark set by Joakim Haeggman and equalled by Paul Curry on the first day.

Goosen was one of five players to earn exemptions for this week's Open from a mini order of merit that started at the Volvo PGA Championship and ended here. The others who can now forgo the dubious pleasure of appearing in the Final Qualifying today and tomorrow are Ross McFarlane, Ignacio Garrido, Jamie Spence and Russell Claydon. "This will be my fourth Open," Goosen said. "I've not done too well in the past but I`m playing better now. My best finish is last - I mean making the cut and then finishing last. When it blows, though, the high ball that I hit is not to my advantage."

A week on the Bonnie Banks, apart from Thursday's interruption, has been the perfect warm-up for the Open. There has hardly been a breath of wind to disrupt players' swings, a far cry from a year ago in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie.

Montgomerie was one of those who crashed in the gales, but he has been happy with his week's work, not least because he has overtaken Bernhard Langer, to whom he gave a decade's start, as the leading money winner in Europe with career earnings of pounds 5,658,771. "I was not entirely happy with my putting, but I am very, very happy with my game," said the Irish Open champion. "I have honestly never been in better form going into an Open so we'll see if I can improve my record."

Today, Monty teams up with Gavin Hastings to face Faldo and the Duke of York in a challenge match at the Duke of Roxburghe's course at Kelso. The two Scots have a 100 per cent record, having defeated Prince Andrew and Sean Connery at Gleneagles a few years ago. Then Monty will play a leisurely practice round with Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley at Troon tomorrow.

"I don't want to play with anyone too big," he said. "I just want to play with some friends. We enjoy playing together and we have fun. If I am playing with someone else, I might get into a match and want to play hard. I just want to relax." That is what he will be trying to do all week. "But the more you mention it, the worse it gets," Montgomerie told the press, with a smile it should be mentioned. "So you can shut up about it."

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