Poulter finds his form in plodders' paradise

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The Independent Online

Everything that looks pretty is not necessarily soft on the inside as Ian Poulter would testify. He of the flashy trousers and the spartan work ethic managed to tame the beautiful beast which is Pebble Beach yesterday. And in doing so the Englishman grabbed an early share of the US Open lead.

A one-under par 70 does not, on the face of it, seem that special on a layout with greens softer than they have been, and probably will be, all week. But Poulter's morning's work did warrant the description, if only because he came into the game's toughest major playing so awfully. His poor form meant that when the assessment was made of who would be most likely to end Europe's 40-year void in this event, Poulter was barely mentioned. In truth, not even by himself.

"I did arrive here concerned because you don't want to go out on a course that difficult with anything else than your top game," said the world No 8. Fortunately, together with his sometime coach David Leadbetter, he found the fix on Monday. So Poulter could venture out on to the Californian links with something resembling his usual swagger.

But it was not all plain sailing on the Pacific. On the last hole, for instance, Poulter visited three bunkers. He still made par. "No I don't think I've ever done that before," he said reflecting on the 20-footer which pulled off this great escape. "It was a real bucket and spade job. But that's just what you have to in the US Open – grind." That was destined to be the story of the opening day.

A golfing paradise? More like a plodder's paradise. All around Poulter on the clubhouse leaderboard were golfers in his own guise – players who move it from A to B with minimum fuss and minimum risk. On the same mark as Poulter were Mike Weir (Canadian plodder), K J Choi (Korean plodder), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spanish plodder). And then one behind these early pacesetters was "Plod", himself.

It was Tiger Woods who first called Luke Donald "a plodder" and a few years on the nickname has inevitably stuck. Many might find that insulting, particularly as the 32-year-old happens to have so much armoury in his bag, including a bunker game without peer. But Donald knows what his strengths are, just as he knows their suitability to the toughest major of them all. "I kept it in play pretty well, it was nothing flashy," he said after his 71. "Solid can win this tournament and level par at the US Open is a solid start. And but for the double bogey on the second..."

Indeed, but for the three-putt six on that par four (his 11th hole ), Donald's card would have been so much more attractive. The world No 6 grinded through his opening nine with nine pars, birdied the first (his 10th) and then quickly recovered his poise after his low point with a 30-footer for a birdie on the short seventh. It was just the start Donald was chasing. A first, a second and a third in his recent trip to Europe filled him with so much confidence. Clearly, it is well-placed optimism.

In contrast, Phil Mickelson's first-round 75 was one of inconsistency and controversy and ultimately frustration. He sliced his second into Stillwater Cove – with the help of a huge bounce off the seawall – on the par-five 18th (his ninth) and on the fourth (his 13th), he risked forfeiting a penalty of a different variety. After trying to drive the green on the 331-yard par four, Mickelson left his second in a greenside bunker. Instinctively, he began to smooth over the sand, but quickly realised what he was doing. The rules state a player is not allowed to test the sand before playing a shot from the hazard. Mickelson's actions could conceivably have earned him a two-shot penalty. As it was he called over a rules official who accepted his explanation.

It was about the one thing which did go in Mickelson's favour in his worst opening score in this tournament for 13 years. He came in with such hope of ending his US Open curse which has seen him rack up five runner-up finishes. But he looked anything but the favourite certain bookmakers had made him as they demoted Woods from the top rung on their betting lists for the first time in a dozen years. "My putting was just terrible," commented Mickelson, after failing to record a single birdie. "It was one of my worst days on the greens." As he was saying it, so his nemesis was teeing off. The most picturesque stage in sport was set for Woods.

Pebble Beach scores

US Open Championship, Pebble Beach GC, Pebble Beach, California

First round scores (US unless stated, par 71)

70 R Cabrera Bello (Sp); K J Choi (S Kor); M Weir (Can); I Poulter (Eng).

71 L Donald (Eng); D Toms.

72 B Van Pelt; S Kjeldsen (Den); H Fujita (Japan); Z Johnson; J Furyk; T Clark (SA); J Leonard; S Verplank; R Barnes; J Dufner; R McGowan (Eng); M Bettencourt.

73 S Marino; G Havret (Fr); T Taniguchi (Japan); S Appleby (Aus); P Harrington (Irl); Y E Yang (S Kor); L Glover; D Frost (SA); C Barlow; K Jones; H Leon.

74 R Sabbatini (SA); S Ames (Can); R Allenby (Aus); M Kuchar; T Immelman (SA); T Jaidee (Thai).

75 C Warren; M Ilonen (Fin); E Molinari (It); R Goosen (SA); A Cabrera (Arg); P Mickelson; E Axley; R Karlsson (Swe); A Atwal (India); B Gates; T Tryon; J Curran.

76 G Woodland; S Khan (Eng); S Cink; K Yokoo (Japan); N Watney; J Gore; J Herman; A Putnam; K Eger (Can).

77 J Mallinger; A Scott (Aus); Y Ikeda (Japan); H Stenson (Swe).

78 S Allan (Aus); D Lamely; J Morrison (Eng); B Gay; S Hansen (Den); C Villegas (Col); H Mahan; B Martin.

79 F Molinari (It); G Ogilvy (Aus); B-H An (S Kor); J Bramlett; A Martin.

80 P Sheehan (Aus); K Na; D McCarthy; T Hampshire.

81 D Pappas (SA).