Whilst Paul Lawrie was comfortably winning the Welsh Open at the Celtic Manor course in Wales, Tiger Woods was equally comfortably winning the Buick Open at the Warwick Hills course at Grand Blanc in Michigan.
If Celtic Manor is, at best, a mediocre track and golfing test, the Grand Blanc Country Club course is the epitome of US target golf with its tree lined fairways and bunkers that are little more than sand-filled dips in the ground.
Neither of these venues provides a test-card for what is to come this week at Hazeltine in Minnesota where the great and the good in the game assemble to contest the USPGA Championship. If what has gone before at Hazeltine is anything to go by, then Paul Lawrie could well shine at long last in the USA.
Lawrie has distinguished himself as a great links player, having won the Open at Carnoustie, when course management was critical, and again over the three links venues of Kingsbarns, the Old at St Andrews and Carnoustie to win the Dunhill Links Championship, when sheer stolid determination was the telling factor. Lawrie, rightfully, also has the reputation of being a great bad weather player.
Last year's Dunhill was demanding enough in almost continuous rain, with all of the interruptions in play incurred, but Celtic Manor threw everything at Lawrie that the great British weather could muster and he played on regardless.
Paul Lawrie was ranked a lowly 72nd in the world order prior to the Welsh event. The rankings, however place a considerable bias on success in the US where the pots on offer are so much higher than in Europe and Lawrie's visits to the US have been somewhat less than distinguished. His performance at Muirfield was also disappointing this year. Tee to green he looked every inch the champion he is, but his putting, particularly his holing-out, left a great deal to be desired.
This seems to have been sorted out with the acquisition of a putter that looks as if it has been designed in a joke-shop but which he wielded to great effect this week in Wales.
Tiger Woods would appear to have never experienced serious problems anywhere on a golf course nor in any department of the game. He does appear, however, to have only one game, that of the long, high-flighted, straight ball that lands, as if spent from its exertions, rarely far away from where intended. This shot, in the hot, humid Mid-West is made-to-measure for its long, soft courses with their fast receptive greens. Indeed, Woods' ball flies so high that it must affect local air-traffic control systems and certainly concern the pilot of the blimp that has become an integral part of every golf tournament.
But at such height the slightest breeze markedly affects his ball and a mild zephyr can deflect it into the neighbouring state. The Tiger suffered proportionately more than most in the weather conditions in the third round at Muirfield and Hazeltine's record, in terms of weather, is not dissimilar.
Hazeltine has a record and a reputation as an extremely tough track. It is as far removed from target golf as you can get in the US and Minnesota, famed as the land of 10,000 lakes, is also famed for its summertime prairie winds. Indeed, Hazeltine has something of an air of Britishness about it.
Certainly it has been good to the Brits. Tony Jacklin won his US Open there in 1970 by a seven shot margin. Then, in near gale force conditions, Arnold Palmer carded a first round 79, Gary Player an 80, and the then invincible Jack Nicklaus returned an unprecedented 81!
In 1999, Luke Donald hit 17 greens in regulation and in a stiff wind in the final round of the NCAA Championship to win by four shots. Paul Casey took fourth place that year and he will be there again this week with Faldo, Rose, Owen, Westwood and the grumbling Montgomerie, although I suspect that none of them will enjoy the experience. Hazeltine is not the favourite venue of most US tournament players either, and it never has been.
Dave Hill, who took second place behind Jacklin, said at the time that the course lacked only '80 acres of corn and a few cows.' Hill was mooed at continuously round the course and this is something that Colin Montgomerie should bear in mind. Mid-Westerners are not as sophisticated as New Yorkers and anything resembling an expression of distaste will be responded to in kind with rural relish. These folks out there in the lakes country don't tend to see lots of snooty kind o' fellas and when they do they generally give them a hard time.
Hazeltine is probably Lawrie's best chance to date to distinguish himself in the US. Every trueborn Scot should pray for the prairie wind to blow and for entire lakes to rain upon the play. The crowd, which will be substantial, will certainly be behind Lawrie and the three Danes and four Swedes in the field for the farm folks of Minnesota are fiercely proud of the Northern European origins.
History will not, however, be behind Lawrie or any other European. No European has taken the USPGA title. Both Tommy Armour and Jock Hutchison, Scots born, were naturalised Americans when they won the PGA and the recent history of the event is splattered with European final round disasters.
Paul Lawrie is made of the right stuff and has shown that he has the tenacity to hold up under pressure. Hazeltine has got to be his best chance of taking a US Major - and my best chance of getting even with my bookmaker.
|| 12 - AUGUST 2002