Jester Roe in bloom

Paul Trow at Shinnecock Hills follows the fortunes of a British freshman; US Open: Yorkshireman enjoys an unlikely graduation day in his first American major as a Spaniard fears for the future
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a high-class leaderboard. With names like Norman, Price and Faldo, Ozaki, Love and Mickelson jostling for pole position, how could it not be?

As anticipated, Shinnecock Hills was setting a stiff examination, and most of the honours students, with the exception of the ring-rusty Fred Couples, defending champion Ernie Els, and Seve Ballesteros, are still around this weekend to face an even tougher set of questions.

But a few freshmen have stayed the course as well. As the half-way watershed approached, their thoughts graduated from surviving the cut to much grander ambitions. Perhaps the unlikeliest name was that of an athletic, almost hyperactive, Yorkshireman in his first American major at the age of 32.

Unlikely only because during his 11-year career as a European tour professional, Mark Roe the golfer has, more often than not, seemed to be upstaged by Mark Roe the court jester.

Time was when every prank played on tour bore Roe's hallmark. He was the unrivalled Clown Prince of European golf. But his golf is far from a joke. He has won three tournaments, including last year's French Open, which he defends next week, and more than pounds 1.3m in prize money in Europe alone. Ninth place last season in the Order of Merit comfortably earned him this US Open baptism.

After two rounds at Shinnecock, Roe was up there. His opening 71 was impressive for someone whose only other competitive appearance on this side of the Atlantic was last November in the Gene Sarazen World Open, when he came sixth.

A one-under-par second round of 69, which lifted him to joint seventh in company with Faldo, ensured that whatever happened over the final 36 holes he would go home a proud man.

"I rate that round very highly. I battled hard and made some good putts," he said. "I came to enjoy myself. You have to be patient on this course because you're going to get some impossible shots. Everyone is.

"One of the reasons I've done well here is that the course is quite European in character. It's very tough. You could double- bogey every hole if you don't concentrate 100 per cent. It's always blowing here, and Europeans are more used to playing in the wind. I'm swinging nicely, but I have missed a few fairways. I wouldn't say my game is 100 per cent, but my putting's been 150 per cent."

In yesterday's third round, Roe carded eight pars on the outward nine, though a double- bogey six into the wind at the 471-yard sixth left him seven behind Greg Norman, still not out of things.

As so often happens with tour pros, Roe's game is blooming again following a prolonged slump. "My motivation was not good during the early season, but the turnaround came at the Spanish Open last month. I had a top 10 finish there despite some putting problems.

"Then at the Volvo PGA I adopted Bernhard Langer's method, with the left hand below the right and the right hand gripping the left wrist and the shaft. It takes the hands and wrists out of the stroke and makes it purely a pivot through the shoulders."

Motivation apart, he has not really been the same since he was hit on the head when an amateur snap-hooked his drive during a pre-tournament pro-am last August. The resulting intermittent nagging headaches have forced him to cut back on the rigorous physical fitness campaign which he has followed since his days as a schoolboy diving champion.

"I am a long way down the Ryder Cup points list now because of that smack on the head," he said. "I had just had three top-10 finishes and was fifth in the Order of Merit when it happened. Now I can't run or cycle as much as I used to. I sometimes get bad headaches, but I've had scans and nothing has shown up. I refuse to take medication, though, because I don't want to be drowsy."

Drowsiness is not a characteristic one would normally ascribe to Roe, one of nature's livewires. He has struck up a rapport with American fans intrigued by the giant sunflower he wears on the back of his hat: "A lot of the players wear them in Europe but mine is by far the biggest. It symbolises the Rainbow House charity, a children's hospice in the Midlands.

"The galleries here are friendly and attentive. A few shout silly things, but the tendency for people to shout `You're the man' or `Get in the hole' has died out.

"I've no intention of playing regularly in America like Nick Faldo, and I don't think it's possible to play the US and European tours at the same time. If you want to play here, the way Faldo's done it is the right way. But I am totally committed to Europe - I love my home tour."

His home tour must love him, so emphatically has he vindicated the USGA's decision to invite the top 15 from Europe's Order of Merit last year. Whatever happens today, the sunflower will be standing tall in Paris next week.