Golf: US Open - Course proves a par leveller

The US Open: Monty struggles to break through Payne barrier as Pinehurst No 2 looks like the winner
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The Independent Online
APART FROM the little matter of competing in the final two rounds of the 99th US Open - as mentally and physically draining as it gets in this game - Jesper Parnevik, the leading European in Pinehurst, also knew he could do the Ryder Cup captain Mark James a big favour over the weekend.

James fears having to make the choice of his two wild card selections from a pool of at least three prime candidates. The youngster Sergio Garcia remains an alluring option, and is untainted by the poor showing of the Europeans this week. Nick Faldo, meanwhile, has now missed his sixth cut in the last ten majors and is beginning to run out of time.

Such a thinking golfer's course as Pinehurst would have been just right for Faldo in his prime, but he exited on Friday evening via a bogey on four of the last six holes to miss the cut by one. Parnevik was four over for his first six holes on Thursday, but he battled back for a pair of 71s and 14th place, five off the lead, at halfway.

It is typical of the Swede to impress in such exalted company. David Duval, the world number one, Payne Stewart, a former US Open champion, and Phil Mickelson were all at three under, two ahead of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Hal Sutton and Billy Mayfair. No one else was under par.

Parnevik may have his lighter side, munching on the odd bite of volcanic sand and the like, but the 34-year-old Swede is a doughty performer in difficult conditions. He was fourth at Royal Birkdale in the Open, a championship in which he has also twice been a runner-up. Two months ago he won the Greater Greensboro Open on the other side of North Carolina.

He did well at Valderrama in the last Ryder Cup and James will have him down for one of the wild cards. Unless, that is, Parnevik can qualify automatically. He began the week in 70th place but a third-place finish here would get him into the top 20, second into the top 10 and a victory would secure his place.

With a glittering leaderboard to contend with, that might be a tall order. It is more than mildly surprising that victory in the Moroccan Open is worth almost as many points as third place in the US Open, but even a high finish by Parnevik here would boost his points tally, and there is the Open, the USPGA and the NEC World Invitational still to come.

The tally of seven Europeans who made the cut, from a starting line-up of 16, exactly matched the number of Europeans in the top-50 of the world rankings. While Bernhard Langer was not exempt, Jose Maria Olazabal made a dramatic self-inflicted exit with a right upper-cut on his hotel room wall and Lee Westwood failed to end his wayward spell. It is an accurate reflection of their status that Parnevik, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Colin Montgomerie are leading the way.

Clarke and Jimenez both scored rounds of 70 on Friday, when the course played almost three shots harder than in the first round. Montgomerie had another 72 to be four over, where he was alongside Phillip Price, a good effort from the Welshman on his debut. "It is very, very difficult," went the familiar Monty refrain. "I only took dead aim at one pin." Greg Norman, one of the notables to miss the cut along with Ernie Els and Fred Couples, admitted he was not just sharp enough after little competitive action in recent weeks. Asked how many greens he hit in regulation, the Shark said: "I think I hit about 12 greens, but I only stayed on two of them."

It did not get any easier yesterday. Hank Kuehne, the US Amateur champion who will miss the Open because he is turning pro, started with a triple- bogey seven at the first for the second day running. This was as nothing compared to what befell Bob Burns. His start consisted of eight straight bogeys and he was heading rapidly for a score in the 80s. Montgomerie was suffering, too. He could not hold his approach to the second green, chipped ten feet past and missed the putt for his first dropped shot of the day.

"I had forgotten how good this golf course was," said Tom Watson, who may be biding his time before he gets on to the Senior tour in September but did make the cut. "I had not played it since the Seventies. It has certainly proved it can hold its own. Without a doubt, I hope it becomes part of the US Open rotation."

The challenge has been one that has excited the best young players. "It is fun when you execute a shot and get it on the green," Duval said. "I think level par would be a real nice position to be in by Sunday evening. Maybe even one or two over."

In contrast to his bogey-free round on Thursday, Duval's 70 on Friday contained five birdies, three bogeys and a double. Duval, who won the Players' Championship in punishing conditions earlier this year, was unconcerned. "I might not have another round without dropping a shot in the US Open for years," he said. "It just doesn't happen at the US Open.

"I feel I am suited to these conditions because I'm patient and I'm efficient at what this tournament demands, which is hitting the ball in the fairway and knocking it on the greens. I enjoy that mind-set and this type of event, what it does to you as a player, how it makes you a little goofy at times."

An expensive, primetime TV match in August will do what has so far not happened in tournament play, pit Woods against Duval. The only problem is that on that occasion it fundamentally won't matter. It does this weekend and today's final round already has the makings of a classic.