Rose's shark capture adds bite to European challenge

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The Independent Online

If the commendable number of Europeans (25) competing here in the first round of the US Open today find a way to make their golf balls roll as predictably as their eyeballs, they should have no problem in addressing one of the game's more mysterious anomalies.

To a man – to Sergio, to Justin, to Padraig – they all have worn the same tired expression when the issue of the baffling gap back to Tony Jacklin's one and only success for the Continent at Hazeltine in 1970. When Ian Poulter says, "go on, ask about the 38 years blah, blah, blah" it is easy to sense frustration at the frequent queries over the drought.

They do not have a reason for it as it simply does not make sense. Jim Furyk, the dogged Pennsylvanian, summed it up best yesterday when he was prompted to give his two cents' worth. "I have no answer for that," said the 2003 champion. "That's just mind boggling seeing as how many great European players there are."

So will this renewal be any different? Well, there have been optimistic noises as Nick Faldo's Ryder Cup boys have arrived at Torrey Pines and acquainted themselves with a course that everyone here agrees is fairer than any US Open course in living memory. "Apart from the length of the course [at 7,639 yards, the longest major lay-out ever] and the firmness of the greens, it is not a typical US Open set up at all," said Colin Montgomerie. "The rough is far more generous than we normally see, and that takes the emphasis off accuracy slightly."

As one of the straighter drivers, Montgomerie was bemoaning that fact, but in truth, nobody will have any excuses come Sunday evening. Except, possibly, the golfer who rarely needs an excuse.

The run-up to the year's second major has been monopolised by Tiger Woods' injured knee and such have been the doubts caused by the revelation that today will be the first time he has walked 18 holes since the final round of the Masters nine weeks ago that his odds have drifted alarmingly from even money.

This morning Woods can be backed at almost 4-1 on the betting exchanges. He has won here in six of the nine events he has played. He insists he will be ready and it could well prove the most generous (stupid) price since he was 20-1 to win the Masters in 1997. Especially when the medical reports of his playing partners are analysed.

Much has been made of the USGA's decision to partner Woods with the world No 2, Phil Mickelson, and the world No 3, Adam Scott, for the first two rounds. Yet although it is billed as the ultimate "marquee three-ball" it may, in fact, be more akin to one of the tents off M.A.S.H.

There is Woods with his left knee, Scott with a broken finger and Mickelson with a hush-hush visit to the hospital on Monday with what was, apparently, a stomach bug.

That will not put off the galleries, who should make it the most watched first-round pairing in the history of major golf and with every hour the chances of Mickelson going one better than his four runner-up finishes were seemingly increasing. Not least in the factoring was Mickelson's determination to win the one he has always wanted at the venue so close to his home and his heart. "I love the US Open," he said. "But I haven't got the love back."

Emotional stuff but, still, it is a shame that it is essentially damaged goods in the ultimate golfing shop window. It may well pay to look elsewhere, particularly as the relatively benign nature of the Pines will, as Montgomerie believes, make it largely a competition on the greens.

"It will all come down to putting – whoever makes most of those tricky seven- and eight-footers for par will win," said the Scot.

That discounts Monty, then, but also perhaps Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has recovered from last year's Carnoustie setback with gumption and his success at the Players Championship last month proved that the work with the short-game guru, Stan Utley, has reaped instant rewards. Yet the demons surely cannot have been exorcised totally and if there are any left, they will surface here over the next four days.

Those all-important short putts may be the undoing of Justin Rose, who looks the likeliest Briton (with Padraig Harrington the most likely Euro). It is gratifying to see that the 27-year-old has regained his confidence with a runner-up finish at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio two weeks ago and his relaxed attitude was exemplified in a shark-fishing trip he went on with Ian Poulter in Florida last week.

Poulter claims he saw a "25 foot Great White" get away but acknowledged that Rose was the victor with a considerably smaller relative of Jaws. "It was a nasty little four-footer," revealed a proud Rose. Apt really seeing as his championship could be defined by them.

One Englishman already enjoying a victory of sorts was Gary Wolstenholme, the veteran amateur who signed off the dole to come over to San Diego on the off chance he would get in as first reserve. Wolstenholme waited around on the practice ground for four days until the call eventually came yesterday afternoon when Sean O'Hair withdrew with a strained chest muscle. Wolstenholme famously beat Woods in a Walker Cup singles match at Porthcawl in 1995. Oh, the portents.

US Open Selected first-round tee-off times (BST)

*3.55pm

Westwood (Eng), Appleby (Aus), Kelly (US).

*4.06pm

Woods (US), Mickelson (US), Scott (Aus).

*8.52pm

Garcia (Spain), Cink (US),

Singh (Fiji).

*9.36pm

Harrington (Irl), Love III (US), Cabrera (Arg).

*9.14pm

Poulter (Eng), Casey (Eng), Donald (Eng).

*9.36pm

Rose (Eng), Els (SA), Ogilvy (Aus).

*10.20pm

Montgomerie (Sco), Sabatini (SA), Toms (US).

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