Golf: Westwood enters the unknown

USPGA: Leading Briton has history on his mind while the rest chase that elusive ticket to Ryder
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The Independent Online
THE LEADERBOARD at the 81st USPGA championship is turning out to be a thoroughly pleasing, if slightly unexpected, sight for those of a European persuasion. Being paired with Tiger Woods in the third round of a major probably means you are doing all right and Lee Westwood was in exactly that position yesterday.

The 26-year-old from Worksop led the European challenge, ahead of Sergio Garcia, in the penultimate group of the day, just three strokes behind the leader Jay Haas, who was paired with Mike Weir, a rookie from Canada who was one off the lead. Haas, beaten by Philip Walton in a vital singles in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, first played in a major in the 1975 US Open at Medinah, six years before his son, Jay Jnr, who is caddieing for him here, was born.

Woods put the Ryder Cup payment controversy behind him to charge into contention with a 67 in the second round. He got off to the perfect start, with birdies at the first three holes, and was out in 32 before consolidating on the more difficult back nine.

The last of Woods's four wins this year came at the Western Open, also in the Chicago area. "The key is to keep giving yourself chances to win and I've managed to capitalise on my opportunities this year," Woods said. "I've always had a good game-plan but, as my swing has become better, I'm starting to execute it better."

Woods set about improving his game to contend on courses that, unlike Augusta where he won the 1997 Masters, did not suit his power off the tee. For Westwood it was just giving himself a chance to get into contention on the big weeks. In his 14th major, he finally managed that with opening rounds of 70 and 68. If he was venturing into the unknown, then being paired with Woods made it feel more comfortable.

They have been thrown together several times in the last couple of years and this was the fourth time in this season's majors. At the Masters they played together on the Sunday, and it was the Englishman who came out of the pack to have a chance to win on the back nine. They were drawn together at the US Open but, having only just recovered from his shoulder injury at the time, Westwood missed the cut.

If the timing of his injury was unfortunate - right after his best major finish of sixth at Augusta - once fit Westwood worked hard and entered a long string of tournaments which ended with him becoming champion at the Dutch and European Opens. He won the latter in Ireland and the Irish Open winner, Garcia, has shown he is determined not to let a little 30 over par effort for two days at Carnoustie get in the way of being one of the greatest talents European golf has ever produced.

Given the success rate of precisely zero for those travelling across the Atlantic to the fourth major championship of the year - apart from those early pros who emigrated and took up club jobs in the States - a victory was looking to be of the same epic proportion as the huge Medinah clubhouse. "I mean, someone should have won it by now," said Mark James, Europe's Ryder Cup captain. What has made that a possibility today is a course that, in pro's speak, is "all in front of you". There are no hidden extras.

It might be playing long - the only major venue rated longer than this 7,401-yard layout was at altitude - but anyone able to keep the ball on the fairways can score well. The same virtue served Europe well at Oak Hill during the 1995 Ryder Cup and could do again at Brookline next month.

"There is enough room on this course," James explained. "It's playing really long and it's target golf, but it feels more comfortable than some of the major venues here which can be slightly alien to us. We have a better chance here. The way I played for the first two rounds, to make the cut, means it must be more European."

This was only the second time James had made all four rounds in his sixth USPGA, giving him a chance of playing himself on to his own team. A total of 15 of the 22 Europeans - excluding English club pro Stephen Keppler, who is based in Georgia - started the event. Three of them missed out by only one shot, Ian Woosnam and Sven Struver losing the opportunity to move up the Ryder Cup table.

But all of the players in the tightly bunched group from eighth down to 14th made it through and have a lot to play for today. Jean Van de Velde, not certain of a Cup place at eighth in the rankings, was one of the more impressive qualifiers as he completed his second round in heavy rain by getting up and down at the 16th and 17th and then birdieing the last to be on level par.

The Frenchman, runner-up in such extraordinary circumstances at Carnoustie, has gone down a storm with the American gallery just for being himself and, after an interview with CBS TV, their leading commentator Jim Nantz gave Van de Velde a case of wine. "If only more golf pros could be like you," Nantz said.

Nick Faldo can still play his way into wild-card consideration for the Ryder Cup and was two under after 36 holes, alongside Colin Montgomerie and another possible pick, Jesper Parnevik. The Swede has not given up hope of qualifying. "There are too many guys not on the team who should be on the team," he said. "The more guys who qualify on their own the better."

Faldo is convinced he is heading in the right direction. "All the work has been getting back to playing golf well under pressure," the six-time major champion said. "My routine got out of whack but now I know what to do if something is wrong."

For the Americans, who only gain points by finishing in the top 10, the man on the bubble, Jeff Maggert, missed the cut, giving hope to the 11th placed Tom Lehman. But with the next two men down, Steve Stricker and John Huston, not qualifying there could be little change on their list, with Fred Couples and Lee Janzen still in the running to be picked by Ben Crenshaw.