Bjorn soothes last year's agonies as 2006 casts shadow over showpiece

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The Independent Online

There is some grand-sounding event called the European Open going on here and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn quite gloriously exorcised the demons that made him walk off after just six holes of the same tournament last year to take a joint lead with Wales's Jamie Donaldson at five under. But did anyone care? Not when there's a Ryder Cup in 14 months' time to get in a lather about.

Making the biggest splash was Padraig Harrington, whose mood had not been helped by joining those such as Ian Poulter on the wrong side of the cut. "It's a big mistake," he said, not referring to the ugly 74 he appended to his even uglier 79, but to the K Club's rather baffling decision to play next year's European Open on the Smurfit Course here and not on The Palmer Course which will host the Ryder Cup 12 weeks later.

"I think they'd get a much bigger field if they played it on The Palmer. Three months is ample time to get a course ready."

Not so said Jamie Birkmyre, the K Club's tournament director, who revealed that it "was outside the ropes, getting the infrastructure ready, that is the problem". But with the two Ryder Cup captains, Tom Lehman and Ian Woosnam, putting their considerable weight behind Harrington's cause, Birkmyre did admit that plans could yet alter.

Woosnam declared he would be pushing for such a U-turn while Lehman conceded he would be "very surprised" if one was not forthcoming. "I would bring across a few players for sure," he said.

But regardless, Hal Sutton's successor revealed he will be bringing his entire squad over to Ireland before the Cup begins. "We'll drink Guinness, we'll fish, we'll play golf," he said, pointing to the fact that this will be the first time in the match's history the Americans will have a "team-bonding" trip. "You can guarantee it," he told sceptical reporters who queried whether those like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson would be ready to rip up carefully laid schedules for an unpaid tour with the lads.

A united American XII would be a different challenge altogether, although with the resurgence of Bjorn and of Harrington and Sergio Garcia winning events on the PGA Tour recently, perhaps Woosnam won't be losing too much sleep.

As his wife, Heather, continues the fight with cancer Darren Clarke commendably battled through his "mind wavering", not to mention an injury to his left knee, to record a 71 to lie one off the pace in a group on four under.

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