Europe's finest fail to make inroads

Twelve months ago, on the eve of the final round of the 128th Open Championship, Tiger Woods, sitting in a wind-blown tent in Carnoustie, predicted that anybody within 10 shots of the leader could win. With his customary precision and attention to detail, Tiger was spot on.

Twelve months ago, on the eve of the final round of the 128th Open Championship, Tiger Woods, sitting in a wind-blown tent in Carnoustie, predicted that anybody within 10 shots of the leader could win. With his customary precision and attention to detail, Tiger was spot on.

He was, of course, including himself in the equation but in the event Paul Lawrie, who was exactly 10 strokes behind Jean Van de Velde, took possession of the claret jug.

On the eve of the final round of the 129th Open, Tiger, nor anybody else at St Andrews, was thinking about anything other than a logical conclusion to a remorseless advance. In the Millennium Open it was the history man against the field and it would be tempting to think that the best of the rest are history.

On the hallowed ground of the Old Course, one unwritten rule of golf appears to have been banished to Hell bunker and back. The mystique of links golf, so close to the hearts of the British, and more particularly the Scots, by and large confounded the Europeans.

The Americans, on the other hand, for whom this form of the game is popularly supposed to represent the dark side of the moon - excluding Alan Shepherd - dominated.

The only explanation to this phenomenon is that the links were not exposed a howling gale. Even so, why should somebody like David Toms, who prior to this week had never played at St Andrews, had never even played in the Open before, make the leaderboard his home for the duration of the Championship while the vast majority of the European Tour's finest failed to grace the green, green grass of the home of golf?

There were only two exceptions to the suffocating presence of the Stars and stripes - Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. Clarke, very much in the running for his maiden major victory in the Open at Royal Troon in 1997 until he sliced a drive onto the beach and laid down the towel for the eventual winner Justin Leonard, has won more than £1m this season.

He also had a very good week here. But nowhere near good enough. After the third round on Saturday night, following rounds of 70, 69 and 68, Clarke did not say that anybody within 10 shots of the leader could win. However, nor did he throw in the towel.

"Tiger is not unbeatable," Clarke said. Most of the survivors of the half-way cut had privately, if not publicly, acknowledged that Tiger was uncatchable. "Have I conceded?" Clarke replied to a question. "Absolutely not."

Clarke, in terms of size and fitness regime, the antithesis of Tiger, was qualified to hold this view. In the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Tournament in California in February, the Irishman soundly defeated the American in the final. So at lunchtime yesterday, Clarke, paired with Bjorn, set out in optimistic pursuit. They both birdied the first hole even though the flag was in an awkward spot, 10 yards in front of the Swilken Burn. Clarke's three put him at 10 under par for the tournament six strokes behind Woods. Bjorn's three took him to 11 under.

To stand an earthly chance of running with the Tiger, they would have to hit every fairway, every green and hole every putt. When Clarke had a birdie on the third, holing from nine feet, he had caught up with Bjorn. But they could not sustain the progress.

Clarke missed a two foot putt at the fourth which cost him a bogey five and a four-footer at the short eighth which resulted in a bogey four. The window of opportunity had the shutters up. Meanwhile the great Dane was also finding St Andrews a frustrating challenge. Bjorn - during the J P McManus pro-am in Limerick in the week before the Open, he and Clarke enjoyed a few beers in a local pub in Adare - lost his momentum at the fourth and the fifth, recording a bogey five and a bogey six, the latter at a hole he would have expected to get a four.

At that point he had dropped back to nine under but he responded with birdies at the sixth, eighth and ninth to come home in 34. Clarke went to the turn in 36, level par, and by then a look at the leaderboard would have told them, had they not already suspected, that the claret jug was nestling in the lap of the Tiger.

Clarke finished with a 73, Bjorn with a 71 and they were merely following in the footsteps of perhaps the only Tiger on earth that is not an endangered species.

Most of the players in the field would have liked to have followed the example of Gordon Brand Jnr. First out in the fourth and final round, and playing on his own having not requested the attention of a marker, he went round the Old Course in 71 in two hours and 18 minutes. That was less than the time it was taking them to play just nine holes in the previous rounds.

In the absence of a significant breeze the Royal and Ancient did its best to defend the traditions and reputation of the Old Course by an almost machiavellian positioning of the pins. A trap was set, for example, at the Road hole, the 17th where the flag was placed close behind the notorious bunker.

It duly ensnared David Duval, who at the beginning of the round was the only player to put Tiger under pressure, and he was stopped in his tracks with a quadruple-bogey eight. Tiger could afford to tiptoe round the hazard. He laid up short with his approach shot, putted onto the green to the right of the sand and accepted a bogey five. Last year the elephant grass at Carnoustie stymied Woods, but to the world No 1 the Old Course was helpless.

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