At Open, Casey, Levet lead European charge

American players absent from top 12 after windless 1st round at Royal Troon

July 16, 2004|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TROON, Scotland - With American players having won seven of the past nine British Opens, it's probably a real concern among European players that the Claret Jug is destined for permanent display in, say, Milwaukee, transported in the back seat of a Chevy and stuffed full of cheeseburgers or bratwurst.

But just when Europe might feel it has darned near lost that trophy for good, it gets something like yesterday's opening round at Royal Troon, where for at least one day, there was a decided continental shift.

In fact, if it is possible that a continent can have a good day on the golf course, then this was it, when eight of the top 12 scorecards were signed by players from Europe.

Paul Casey of England and Thomas Levet of France shared the lead after the first round at the 133rd British Open, enjoying a near windless day at Royal Troon, which allowed them matching rounds of 5-under 66.

Michael Campbell of New Zealand had one bogey on his way to a 67, one shot ahead of a double-decker bus of players at 68, a group that features British Amateur champion Stuart Wilson, Vijay Singh, Carl Pettersson and Marten Olander of Sweden, Alastair Forsyth of Scotland and Gary Evans of England.

Evans produced one of the day's brightest moments, a double eagle on the par-five fourth, which he holed from 227 yards with a 5-iron.

Levet didn't do anything nearly as dramatic, but a six-birdie, one-bogey day certainly lifted his spirits. Levet, who lost to Ernie Els in a playoff in the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, said it wasn't only a great start, but also a good way to formulate a plan to keep it up.

"What I tell myself is just keep smiling," he said.

Meanwhile, it's up to the U.S. players to find a reason to grin. Right now, one has to dig deep to reach the top American, all the way down to a tie for 13th, which is where Kenny Perry, Rich Beem, Skip Kendall, Scott Verplank and Steve Lowery all stand after rounds of 69.

Tiger Woods is one shot behind them, but that's got to be considered a good sign for him. His 1-under 70 was his first opening round under par in a major since the 2002 PGA Championship, a drought spanning six major tournaments.

Woods said the weather helped everybody, even if it wasn't supposed to be such a nice day.

"Today was supposed to be blowing and it ended up being probably one of the best days you'll ever see in a British Open," he said.

It looked even better to Woods the moment he saved par at the 18th when he drilled a 6-footer. He said later that he's content with his position, at least for now.

"It's a positive start," he said. "And hopefully I can continue on that and play well the rest of the tournament."

The sentiment is a familiar one, especially for the U.S. players who have grown accustomed to dominating the majors.

Since the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, U.S. players have won 14 of the past 19 majors. Players from the United States have also won the past five times the British Open has been held at Troon.

The last player from Europe to win a major was Paul Lawrie of Scotland, when he came from 10 shots behind on the last day at Carnoustie.

If Troon was tame for a day, and 39 players shot under par, it still had its moments of unruliness. Ben Curtis, the defending champion, shot a 4-over 75 and is in danger of missing the cut. Sergio Garcia had the same score as Curtis, and Padraig Harrington shot a 76.

Then there was Els, who experienced both sides of Troon's personality. He aced the 123-yard eighth hole, known as the Postage Stamp, and was at 4-under by the time he stepped to the tee at the par-three, 222-yard 17th and chose a five-iron.

It was instant trouble. Els pulled his shot left into a bunker, didn't get it out on his first try, flopped it onto the green with his third shot and two-putted for double bogey.

"I had a pretty nice round going there," he said. "I had a bit of a downhill lie in the bunker, but it wasn't the most difficult shot I've ever had in my life and I just messed it up. From really nowhere, I made double bogey, so that's quite disappointing.

"But from such a highlight on eight to such a lowlight on 17, it's amazing."

Casey was born in Cheltenham, England, and at Arizona State broke Woods' Pacific-10 Conference scoring record. He turned pro in 2000 and has played mainly on the European Tour, where he is 13th on the Order of Merit.

His opening round included seven birdies, two bogeys and a new putting routine in which he looks at the hole during his practice strokes to feel the distance better. It must have worked, because Casey made a 30-footer to birdie the 11th, another 30-footer to birdie the 16th and a 16-footer to close with a birdie at the 18th.

After his round, Casey referred to "we" in several comments about his play, a group he said included his coach, Peter Kostis, and girlfriend. He explained why.

"I think it maybe disperses the pressure," he said. "I can blame somebody else when things go wrong."

As far as blame goes, John Daly managed to pass some around, even after his round of 1-under 70. He accomplished it all despite a bad back he said he got from his first-class seat on his flight to Glasgow.

"I paid 4,000 bucks to come over here. ... I felt like I was sitting in coach. It was very uncomfortable."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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