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FOCUS ON GOLF: British Open

Who in Europe Can Stop Reign?

Golf: Westwood, Montgomerie given best shot of ending six-year drought and three-year run by U.S. players.

July 16, 1998|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHPORT, England — The British Open begins today at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, which means only one thing around these parts. Yes, it's a wake-up call for the European players, who haven't exactly covered themselves in glory recently.

It has been six years since Nick Faldo's victory at Muirfield, which was the last time a player from Europe won the British Open. To say this little fact doesn't go down very well here is like saying there's a high fat content in those pork pies at the concession stands.

The players have some serious explaining to do, it seems. Colin Montgomerie has his own observation about the drought.

"I think it's just coincidence," he said. "I think we've only got two of the top 10 [himself and Lee Westwood] in the world. I'm glad to see Lee is in that top 10. I think the Americans have the other seven, plus Ernie Els [of South Africa].

"So there's your answer."

Well, thank you very much.

As usual, Montgomerie will be one of the standard-carriers for Europe, which has a lot more luck in the Ryder Cup than it has in the British Open. The United States carries a three-year winning streak into the Open, built on consecutive victories by John Daly, Tom Lehman and Justin Leonard.

Those three are here at Birkdale, which is going to have a much higher degree of difficulty than it did in 1991 when Ian Baker-Finch won at eight under par. The fairways have been brought in and made narrower, which is going to be very interesting if the wind blows as hard as it has so far this week.

Like just about everyone else, Daly has had trouble coming up with some reasonable expectations. In fact, he's fairly blunt when asked about his expectations for the week.

"Not really any," he said. "I have a chance. I'm not putting well enough to make a whole bunch of birdies. That's the problem with my life right now. I don't know how the hell I'm going to wake up every morning. I don't know what mood I'm going to be in."

Right now, he's in a weight-loss mood, which is a good thing because Daly weighed 247 pounds when he started it. That was nearly four months and 27 pounds ago, but at least Daly has come to grips with it.

"I'm made to be fat, so there's no sense worrying about it," he said.

As far as worrying goes, Montgomerie and the rest of the European players have a corner on it. Montgomerie, who tied for 24th last year at Royal Troon, said his approach is to avoid putting too much pressure on himself, which is laudable if not impossible.

"I'm obviously looking forward to the challenge of it all," he said.

And so is Westwood, generally regarded as the European most likely to succeed at Birkdale. Westwood already has moved to No. 7 in the world rankings this week from No. 12, even though he hasn't won a major. His expectation level has risen at approximately the same pace.

"I think they're higher because I'm English and this is in Britain," he said. "But, you know, it depends on the way I handle it. What other people expect doesn't really bother me. I just go into it thinking and having my own ideas of what to expect.

"I'm not afraid of winning. I'm not afraid of losing. If I don't win the Open this year, it won't be the end of the world to me. I would dearly love to win it, but it's not life and death. It's only a game at the end of the day."

Meanwhile, Westwood's counterpart on the PGA Tour said he's ready. David Duval has finished tied for 20th, 13th and 33rd in his three British Open appearances and he says if the chance to win a major presents itself, he is prepared to grab it.

"If the opportunity presents itself, I feel like I'm certainly ready," he said. "You know, you can never force things. If your time comes, your time comes. You've got to play through it and seize the opportunity."

After a rainy, windy Wednesday morning, the sun broke through the clouds and warmed things up a little bit in the afternoon, although the wind continued to be blustery. Royal Birkdale may play a little longer if the fairways do not dry out, but the wind is what most players are concerned about.

"If the wind blows, par would be a good score," Daly said.

Around this place, par may be a good score anyway.

*

For updates during each round of the British Open, a quiz testing your knowledge of tournament history and photos of the players to watch, go to The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/britishopen

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