The mosquitoes are swarming, the vultures are circling. On the eve of the USPGA Championship here yesterday, Corey Pavin felt obliged to rise to the defence of Colin Montgomerie, as his counterpart as Ryder Cup captain was repeatedly asked about rumours connected to his private life.
During a heated joint press conference – which later descended into the foul-mouthed as the US captain squared up to a TV reporter – Pavin interrupted the interrogation, demanding: "Let's stick to golf subjects here." By then Montgomerie had been quizzed about salacious rumours circulating on American websites.
"I know a lot of you right now are having fun at my expense," said the Scot, clearly rattled. In truth, everyone in golf, even the players, is talking about the rumours which have built in the wake of an affair he confessed to having after his wedding two years ago. Some have even questioned whether the 47-year-old should resign as captain because of the ridicule. And Montgomerie, himself, confessed that he has gone to the prospective members of his team for their opinion. "I've spoken to a number of the players and there's no issue at all," he said. "None at all."
Not everyone agrees. David Feherty – the former Ryder Cup player and a long-time enemy of Montgomerie, having coined the nickname "Mrs Doubtfire" – triggered the intrigue in the US with accusations made during a radio show. It included this warning from the pro-turned-summariser: "The chances of this remaining a secret until after the Ryder Cup are just zero."
It is undeniably a distraction for Montgomerie, who should be solely focused here on the impending make-up of his team. With three events remaining, how he must hope that Padraig Harrington, Justin Rose and Paul Casey can force their way into the automatic placing at the USPGA, starting today. Because of their commitment to the American tour, this is the trio's final opportunity to make the dozen by right. Montgomerie will not be wanting to use his three wild cards on three players who are refusing to travel over for the last qualifying event at Gleneagles in two weeks' time.
Pavin had his own problems in this regard; hence the extraordinary bust-up outside the media room. The fact that the name of Tiger Woods was central to the argument will surprise few. In the press conference Pavin had accused Jim Gray of the Golf Channel of misquoting him when declaring Woods was guaranteed a wild card for Celtic Manor. When Gray sought him out for an explanation outside the media room, the pair traded insults, with Pavin being branded a "liar". His wife, Lisa, also became involved, swearing at Gray. It all served to afford the Woods saga even more of an edge.
Pavin spoke to Woods yesterday, but declined to reveal the details of the discussion. It is safe to assume the world No 1 reiterated his new-found desire to be granted one of the four captain's picks – if, that is, he fails to qualify here. America's eight automatic spots are decided on Sunday night and, to leapfrog two places from 10th on the list, Woods at the very least requires a top-six finish. As he suffered his worst 72-hole tournament in 14 years as a pro last week that does not appear likely.
So Pavin's reported quote to Gray – "Of course, I'll pick him, he's the world No 1" – took on huge significance. Yet Pavin claimed never to have uttered those words, saying it would be "disrespectful" to the other candidates. For his part, Montgomerie sat next to him and confessed with a laugh, "I'd pick him." "Thanks for that, Colin," retorted Pavin. It was the one good-natured moment.
While Woods and all the Montgomerie innuendo have monopolised this build-up, it has become easy to forget there is a major taking place here. For the first time this century, Woods is not the favourite for a major in which he is competing. When he came second in the USPGA last year to Y E Yang, who would have believed he would start at 18-1 just 12 months later?
So in steps Phil Mickelson to assume the summit in the betting market, but with anything but a swagger. To be fair to the left-hander, he has – as he revealed on Tuesday – been suffering from psoriatic arthritis, but despite the fact he says the medication and the switch to a meat-free diet work, his 78 on Sunday makes one wonder. Particularly as the No 1 tag was dangling more tantalisingly than ever.
No, he is not a strong favourite in a major field which, without the injured world No 3 Lee Westwood, seems more open than perhaps at any other time in the Tiger era. A lot of the attention is focused on the Irish. Harrington won here in 2008 and in the last few weeks appears to have recovered some form. But the Wanamaker Trophy was the last title he lifted and those lost two years must be a concern.
In contrast, Rory McIlroy is a winner Stateside already this year and Nick Faldo sees the 21-year-old as the obvious candidate to prevail on this long and relentless link-style test. "I'd make Rory my favourite. I suppose there is the worry that he is still too young at 21 to win a major but I don't think so, in his case," he said. "He's had the perfect build-up, doing well at the Open and then a nice finish at the Bridgestone, where he played well but not so well that he was burning up energy being in contention."
The six-times major winner makes a persuasive case. Certainly, the three rounds at St Andrews flanking that outrageous 80 on the wind-swept second day, only add to the anticipation of a second Irish winner in three majors. McIlroy senses the opportunity. "There's going to be a lot of guys here thinking that it's the right time for them to break through, and I'm definitely one of those guys," he said.
There are other obstacles, as Hunter Mahan explained. "The mosquitoes were out this morning in a big way," he said. "It was quite shocking. Especially when you went by the few holes right by the lake there. I mean, it was, incredible. They were swarming." Mahan was practising with Woods, who hit his tee shot on the fifth into the thick rough. Instead of reloading, Woods ran off the tee box, away from the swarm. "It's all yours," he shouted to Mahan, who continued to be eaten alive. Hunter was the hunted. Monty knew how he felt.
Aiming for a first Major
Five candidates to extend the run of first-time major winners to three:
Rory McIlroy (NIrl)
Nick Faldo thinks he should be favourite and, based on three of his rounds at the Open, that is not as daft as it sounds. Is supremely confident and thinks that if he can stay patient, glory awaits.
Steve Stricker (US)
The world No 4 could become No 1, provided he wins, Tiger is out of the 24 and Phil Mickelson is out the top three. At least two of those scenarios seem probable. Undoubtedly has the short game, but is Stricker long enough?
Paul Casey (Eng)
Learnt a lesson at the Open when playing in the final group on the final day. That was his first experience of that sort of major heat. The skills have always been there, perhaps the temperament is now ready as well.
Jeff Overton (US)
One of the underrated group of young Americans, the 27-year-old is a form player with a third, second, sixth and 11th in his last four starts.
Charl Schwartzel (SA)
Louis Oosthuizen's big mate, he was supposed to beat him to a major title. Do not be surprised if Schwartzel is inspired to emulate the Open champion.
Tee-off times (Selected, BST)
Starting at hole 1:
18.35 C Wood (Eng)
18.45 R Fisher (Eng)
18.55 E Els (SA)
19.05 D Clarke (N Irl)
19.15 R McIlroy (N Irl)
19.35 P Mickelson (US), G McDowell (N Irl), L Oosthuizen (SA)
19.45 J Rose (Eng)
Starting at hole 10:
13.50 P Casey (Eng)
14.00 P Harrington (Irl)
14.20 T Woods (US)
14.40 I Poulter (Eng)
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