Golf: Woods leads the charge of youth

The Open: O'Meara in awe of young compatriot as he begins his defence of the silver claret jug at Carnoustie
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The Independent Online
AT THE US Masters there is an official handing over of the Green Jacket from one champion to another. There is no such symbolic gesture at the Open, but the net result of the 128th Championship could be the shifting of the silver claret jug from one mansion to another on the Isleworth estate in Orlando.

Mark O'Meara, upon whose shoulders Tiger Woods slipped the symbol of victory at Augusta last year, accompanied the Open trophy across the Atlantic, but it would not surprise him to see his neighbour, Woods, looking after it on the way back home.

"I have played with a lot of the greats of the game and I personally have never seen anyone who has the abilities that Tiger Woods has," said the defending champion. "It is phenomenal how talented this young guy is. Just unreal."

O'Meara is 42, the same age as the US Open champion, Payne Stewart. While the winning of three majors in 1997 by twentysomethings appeared a false dawn, the game is on the verge of an explosion of youthful champions.

"When I play with Tiger Woods or David Duval, I am awestruck by their physical abilities, what they can do with a golf ball," O'Meara added. "Yet I also see an unbelievable maturity in these young players, even with Sergio Garcia at the age of 19. These young players are working out more, stronger and are not really intimidated. They feel they can win.

"In the past, the young players had the power but not necessarily the touch or feel. Now you have Woods, Duval, Garcia, Lee Westwood who have power yet are great putters and have great short games. They have the whole package.

"The game is more competitive now and the courses need to be longer and tougher. That's OK with me. I've only got another couple of years and then I'll be in semi-retirement until the senior tour."

By common acclaim, Carnoustie could present the hardest examination yet. At 7,361 yards it is more than long enough and tough enough. "Of all the Opens I've played in, this is by far the toughest set-up I've ever seen," O'Meara said. "The fairways are narrow and the rough particularly thick after a wet spring. And then there is the wind, a constant feature on the Angus coast and expected to get up to 25 mph by midday today."

In practice yesterday, the grouping that included Mark Calcavecchia, the '89 Open champion, Phil Mickelson and the English amateur Luke Donald had a $2,000 (pounds 1,290) "no-bogey bonus" for the round. "I made it through 10 holes without a bogey and then made six after that," Calcavecchia said.

Predictions of the winning total included 10 over par from Severiano Ballesteros and 16 over - that is 300 strokes - from Colin Montgomerie. Sir Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, thought it would be "a maximum of two over par".

"The player who wins is not going to mind what his score is, and we are not worried about it either," Bonallack added. "The players know they are playing probably the hardest championship course in the world. They will still do lower scores than anyone else."

While the US Golf Association are obsessed with the score at which their championship is won, the R and A admit only to wanting to present the fearsome test that was Carnoustie before it came off the Open rota in 1975. Mother Nature then took a devious hand.

"We did not set out to embarrass the best players in the world," said Hugh Campbell, chairman of the championship committee. "It is quite the opposite. We set out to test them on one of the toughest links in the world, and the weather has chipped in to make it an even more severe test than we imagined it would be. The best player should win."

Woods, at 23, is ready to add to his Masters win of two years ago. With his extra length off the tee, the American has the advantage of not having to take the driver out of his bag, and did not do so in his practice round yesterday. His form is exemplary, with three wins in his last four outings, and he has talked enthusiastically about the challenge ahead.

Duval, who lies second to Woods in the world rankings, failed on the last count when he moaned that this was "nothing like the course" he played four years ago.

When it comes to mind games it will be fascinating to see which Montgomerie turns up: the Monty who was knocking down flagsticks at Loch Lomond or the Monty who takes the weekend off at the Open. Should it be the former the prize is a large one - to become the first Scottish-born player to win the Open in Scotland since the naturalised American Tommy Armour won at Carnoustie in 1931.

Montgomerie's straight driving should be a key asset for the European No 1, as it will be for Vijay Singh and Westwood. The 26-year-old Englishman has put his injury problems behind him and is running into form at the right time. He, for one, will not have minded the spotlight lingering on Garcia.

After his victory in the Irish Open and second place at Loch Lomond, not to mention the kind words all the other players have offered about him, Garcia will be attempting to become the first teenager to win the Open this century.

"Inside of me, I feel it is going to be a great Open Championship," Garcia said. "And, well, I'll try to be there at the top. If I have the chance to win, I'll do my best."

Only one of the 156 players, however, has referred to what is about to come over the next four days at Carnoustie as "fun". As the youngest player in the field, Zane Scotland has that luxury.

In a quirk of fate, Scotland has been given the same tee-times for the first two days, beginning at 4.05 this afternoon, as Justin Rose had last year on his way to finishing fourth. The 16-year-old amateur remains unfazed. "I'm not daunted at all," he said. "I'm just going to go out and have fun." For the professionals, it will be more like hard labour.