Britain's Open prospects stuck in the rough

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The Independent Online

When a man with the unstinting optimism of Seve Ballesteros starts to despair then it is time to worry. And fortunately the great conquistador was talking about the whole of Europe when he shook his head here yesterday and said he didn't much fancy the chances of the home brigade.

When a man with the unstinting optimism of Seve Ballesteros starts to despair then it is time to worry. And fortunately the great conquistador was talking about the whole of Europe when he shook his head here yesterday and said he didn't much fancy the chances of the home brigade.

If he had been talking purely of the British challenge then that shake of the head might have been so vigorous that the injured back that has put his career on hold would have been in jeopardy of further damage. Because there is only one word that adequately describes the phase that British golf finds itself going through: slump.

From Montgomerie to Casey, from Rose to Clarke, the boys are not firing. Indeed, it is indicative of the chances of this week heralding the first British major-winner in five years that the shortest-priced home hope is Darren Clarke at 40-1. And he's missed his last two cuts.

There is always Dublin's Padraig Harrington we can spuriously call our own, although the noises emanating from his camp yesterday were hardly encouraging. "My neck has been given me a problem," he confessed. "I'm having a lot of treatment. It's still there when I thought it would be gone."

Over on the practice range things were just as downbeat as Paul Casey set about trying to rediscover a semblance of the game that has made him the highest-ranked Englishman. "I'm not in good shape, but there's no point in getting stressed about it," he said. "I'll just put in the work and hopefully it will pay off and if it doesn't then it doesn't really matter."

That is easy to say when you are a 26-year-old millionaire. One golfer it always really really matters to, of course, is Colin Montgomerie, the man of Troon, who yesterday spoke of the plus points of being the underdog.

"I'm going out there with less expectation than I have had in past Opens, especially when I came here in 1997," he said. "But now I'm very relaxed. It's nice to be here. Saying that if all I believed I was capable of was finishing 10th then I wouldn't be here. I'm here because I think I can still win, deep down I feel there's an opportunity.'

Knowing every blade of grass should help as should the Troon support that is sure to turn up for the local hero who has been a member here from childhood and whose father was the club secretary. Not even a draw that has pitched him in with Thomas Bjorn, who he has had the odd run-in with, will negate that advantage. "The crowd could help a couple of putts just drop in, you never know," he said with a wink.

Darren Clarke could do with something dropping other than his weight. Second in Troon in 1997 the Ulsterman has seen the shots pile up as the pounds have fallen off. He has shed more than three stones in all but with it has gone the confidence that made him into a global force.

"My timing has been out, it's getting tedious," he said. "My timing has not been where it is needed, hence my inconsistency. But I've been hitting balls and working away. That's the only thing I can do is keep on practising, and hopefully it will turn around in time." If it fails to then British hopes look bleaker than they ever have, although Montgomerie believes that one result could change all that.

"Yes, we're going through a bad spell right now but people recover and times recover," he said. "We had a domination back in the Eighties, I suppose, and the early Nineties but it seems to have dried up. But that will come back, it's just a matter of when and how. It just so happens that this week it all might change." But who we can expect to do the changing was not quite so easy to answer.

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