Purgatory in Valhalla

Andy Farrell says that this week's USPGA will bring the Europeans to the boil
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The Independent Online
In Norse mythology, Tom Lehman would have been the sort of valiant Viking warrior who would have received an automatic exemption for Valhalla. This week the new Open champion visits the terrestrial version, the course by the same name in Kentucky, and will tee up in the first two rounds of the USPGA Championship with the Master, Nick Faldo, and the US Open winner, Steve Jones, having beaten one and lost to the other in the last two majors.

The 78th USPGA, the fourth of the majors both in timing and prestige, seems to have hurried on with indecent haste. Played in the dog days of the American summer, it is usually characterised by temperatures soaring to levels which cause Ian Woosnam, even without his present sinus infection, regularly to threaten never to come back.

Louisville will be steaming and Europe's chances of a first winner - discounting the Scottish-born naturalised Americans of the early days - would be improved with importation of those water-spraying cooling machines from the equestrian events in Atlanta.

Louisville is better known as home of the Kentucky Derby and the fact that Valhalla is staging its first professional tournament leaves the race wide open. The dream of a local businessman, Dwight Gahm, the course opened in 1986 and it may become very familiar. The PGA of America, who already have a quarter-share in the venue, may soon own it outright and the suggestion is that Valhalla will stage the USPGA as often as once every four years. A Ryder Cup early in the next century is also a distinct possibility.

Jack Nicklaus, a five-time winner of the USPGA and a significant minor figure in the three majors so far this year, designed the course and one man who has made sure he seen it is the defending champion Steve Elkington. The Australian, who beat Colin Montgomerie in a play-off at Riviera last year, has been trying not to give too much local knowledge away.

"It's a course that is going to take a bit of getting used to," he said. "On a lot of the holes you're not exactly sure where to hit the ball until you play it. It is a good test which is going to bring out the best players. A Jack Nicklaus course is usually generous off the tee, he lets you hit the ball out there, but you are going to have to be on your iron play."

As well as adjusting to life as a major champion and as a father, Elkington had the clubs he had used all his career stolen in January and has missed the cut in two majors this year. Two players from Kentucky who know the course are Jodie Mudd and Russ Cochran, but the form player on the US tour is John Cook, who skipped the Open because he had tickets for his family for the Olympics. Perhaps he got bored there, because last week he won the CVS Charity Classic, his second win in just over a month following a four-year dry spell.

In 1992, Cook tied second with Faldo in the USPGA, after losing to the Englishman at Muirfield a month earlier. Faldo, who is after a USPGA or US Open to go with his three Masters and three Open titles, went to the US tour precisely so that an unknown, but typically American, course such as Valhalla would not be such a shock.

And then there's Montgomerie, whose form has yoyoed of late. The Scot birdied the last three holes to get into the playoff a year ago, having missed the cut in the Open, just as he did at Lytham. The man who recently stated that golf was not in the top-three of his priorities, says he has reached No2 in the world giving only 90 per cent. To remain there, he has to match last year's run of two wins, two seconds and a third in August and September or he will drop points.

With work on the putting green, he should be suited to Valhalla. "People keep telling me it is only a matter of time before I win a major, but it has worried me a lot," he said. "I'm No 2 in the world and I would like to be No 1 with a few majors to my credit. I used to be overweight and I worked on my fitness and came straight back and won in Dubai. It is important for me not to put on weight again and now I must practise more. But miracles don't happen overnight."

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