Westwood and Donald aim to keep Americans on the ropes
The world's top two are in form and should maintain Europe's recent major dominance
Thursday 16 June 2011
Luke Donald is a driven man. As he becomes the first Briton to tee it up in a major as the world number one in 18 years, the Englishman sees the solution to his US Open woes in the big head shining back at him.
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Donald's record in golf's toughest event only underlines the billing. His best finish in seven attempts is a tie for 12th and in the last four years he has made the cut just once, last year at Pebble Beach when he came 47th. The reason? Donald has figured it out, meaning he goes into the 111th US Open feeling more confident than ever before.
"If you look at my stats I've really struggled tee to green in the US Open," said Donald yesterday as he applied the final touches to a typically meticulous preparation. "My driving hasn't been accurate enough and I've suffered. But what's really pleased me in the build-up was that I led the driving accuracy charts at The Memorial two weeks ago. It is at least five years since I've done that in any tournament."
Of course there are other factors which force the pulse to quicken when Donald's Congressional candidature is considered. In the last eight months he has racked up 15 top 10s from 16 events. Three weeks ago he won his second title of the year – adding the BMW PGA Championship to the yet more prestigious Accenture Match Play – ensuring that he would fill the void going back to the 1993 USPGA Championship which saw Nick Faldo set out in Toledo as top dog in the rankings.
Interestingly, however, despite his run, despite his ranking, Donald will not begin at the head of the betting markets. The honour will be Lee Westwood's to become the first European to be favourite going into a major, since, you guessed it, Faldo way back in the 90s. If this highlights the strength of the English bid to win a first major since... drum roll... Faldo in 1996 then so, too, should the threeball going off the 10th tee at 8.06am local time today. Never has England boasted the top two in the world going into a major – not even Faldo could pull that one off.
So it perhaps doesn't need Colin Montgomerie to declare "Europeans will win 10 of the next 20 majors" or for Faldo, himself, to say "this is their time". It's all written there in black and white. Five players from the United Kingdom in the top 10, and with Martin Kaymer the third member of the marquee grouping at world No 3 that makes it six Europeans. These riches seem only more plentiful when put alongside the paucity in the American columns. Their recent major record is unprecedented.
Last year at Pebble Beach – when Graeme McDowell became the first European in 40 years to win – no American finished in the US Open top three for the first time in 100 years; at the next month's Open Championship, no American finished in the top three; three months ago, for first time in Masters history, no Americans finished in the top three. There's a trend going on, and even the professional golfer, that most individual of sportsman, is taking heed.
"I think this tournament will tell a lot," said Steve Stricker, the highest-ranked American at No 4. "If an American can win here, maybe we can gain back some of that momentum. It seems to be pro-Europe every week, every major. We are on the ropes a little bit. Everybody sees it. Everybody talks about it."
The talk could very well develop into full-pitch screaming if, in the nation's capital, of all places, the US major drought reaches a record level. This would be the fifth major without a Starred and Striped champion and, with Tiger Woods at home in Florida nursing his Achilles injury and his shattered ego, the soul-searching would be intense. Certainly Phil Mickelson's declarations here on Tuesday – "we have a plethora of great players coming up" – would sound very flat indeed.
As it is, Mickelson must be rated as the best home hope this week. Mickelson, the last US pro to win a major at the 2010 Masters, turns 41 today, but sounded more sprightly than ever when discussing the Congressional course, and more pertinently it's set-up.
Mickelson has finished second in the US Open on five occasions, which is a remarkable record seeing as the penal conditions have hardly suited this erratic driver. But now the USGA have seen the light – Mickelson's light anyway – and have apparently placed some emphasis on the power of the recovery shot. Are they playing into Mickelson's left hand?
"Unlike past US Opens, this set-up tests your entire game," he said. "This one tests your short game. This one tests your ability to hit recovery shots as well as your ability to keep the ball in play."
Mickelson has not been crooning in solo. Yes, there have been concerns raised about the USGA "losing the greens", but the water has been applied and the praise has been similarly gushing.
Westwood names Congressional in his top three favourite courses – Augusta and Pebble Beach being the others – and there has been an obvious swagger in his preparations. On Saturday he owns the favourite – Hoof It – in the Ascot sprint and how he could do with a fast start here this morning.
As Ernie Els, the 1997 champion here, told The Independent, the par-three 10th "is one hell of a way to start a major". And such is the severity of the immediate challenges thereafter, the South African opines that level par after three holes will feel a couple under. That's just as Westwood likes it and he is rated as the principal hope of becoming the 11th different winner from the last 11 majors.
There will be other Euros with weighty followings, not least Rory McIlroy after his heart-breaking 80 in the final round of The Masters. But this place has a Westy feel to it. Straight down the middle, on to the green, two putts, next tee. It sounds boring, but no matter how kindly the USGA have turned, at the US Open boring wins.
Three to watch
The favourite Lee Westwood (12-1, William Hill)
It's tough to separate Westwood and Donald, but the nod just goes to the former. He names Congressional as one of his three favourite courses and with his driving and high ball-flight is eminently suited to the 7,574-yard monster. This could be his breakthrough.
The dark horse Retief Goosen (66-1, Coral)
The greens are going to be ridiculously quick and when his touch is in there's nobody better on lightning surfaces than the ice-cool South African. Has won this event twice and has been threatening in majors of late. The Goose may not yet be cooked.
The rank outsider Anthony Kim (125-1, William Hill)
On a dreadful run of form, Kim's interest in the game seems to be waning. But he has won here before and if he can return to anywhere near his best, his odds will appear ludicrous. Be careful if placing a bet, however. There happen to be four players in the field with the same surname.
Selected tee-off times
US unless stated; times BST
12.44pm M Kuchar, P Casey (Eng), K J Choi (Kor)
*12.44pm P Harrington (Irl), A Cabrera (Arg), S Cink
12.55pm G McDowell (N Irl), P Uihlein (amateur), L Oosthuizen (SA)
*1.06pm L Donald (Eng), L Westwood (Eng), M Kaymer (Ger)
1.17pm E Els (SA), D Love, J Furyk
1.28pm J Rose (Eng), T Clark (SA), J Day (Aus)
6.13pm M Wilson, M Laird (Sco), P Hanson (Swe)
*6.35pm R McIlroy (N Irl), D Johnson, P Mickelson
6.57pm R Fowler, I Poulter (Eng), H Mahan
* Start on 10th hole
TV Sky Sports 2, 3pm-midnight.
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