This Open usually closed for Europeans


OAKMONT, Pa. -- Europe does a lot of things well. The coffee is terrific. The food is even better. Great cheese. Great wine. Stress isn't a part of the daily lifestyle. If you want to become a world-class chef or learn how to drive really small cars down really tight roads at really high speeds in the middle of the night with your headlights off and while smoking a cigarette, it's where you go to train.

If you want to learn how to win a major golf championship, it isn't.

It's best you get to know Nick Dougherty now. He's an interesting fellow who after one round leads the U.S. Open at 2 under par at Oakmont Country Club. He's also from England, which means he could be off the leaderboard by the time you get home from work today.

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970. So did Janis Joplin. It also was the year an oxygen tank exploded aboard Apollo 13, causing crew members to spend anxious moments wondering how their wills would read.

It also was the last time a European won the Open.

Yeah, that long ago.

This major rolls around, and Tony Jacklin's seven-shot win at Hazeltine 37 years ago inevitably is recalled any time a European flirts with the Open lead. Dougherty did more than that Thursday and sits alone on top -- his 68 just one of two rounds (the other being Angel Cabrera's 69) to break par.

The skies opened here late Wednesday, and heavy rain fell, and brutally dry and fast greens softened. Still, only two names managed red numbers.

"Me leading the U.S. Open doesn't mean I'm going to win it," Dougherty said. "But I believe I'm a good enough golfer to contend in majors and want to be one of those European and British players media look to fly the flag for us in these tournaments because we've had a drought recently."

A drought?

Euros haven't won any of the last 29 majors. It's as if they're playing these things in a modern-day Dust Bowl.

An explanation is not as simple as saying Europe doesn't have good enough players, given it has won the last three Ryder Cups and 12 from the continent have combined for 20 top-25 finishes and 12 top 10s in PGA events this year.

One thing everyone can do is stop referring to Sergio Garcia as the best player never to win a major, or didn't you catch his 9-over 79 on Thursday?

Still, Colin Montgomerie has finished second at the Open three times but opened with a 6-over here. Seve Ballesteros had three top-five Opens between 1983-87, and Nick Faldo -- who taught Dougherty all the aspects of professional golf -- equaled that between 1988-92.

The courses here -- Opens are far tougher than anything European players routinely play -- is a more reasonable cause. But that shouldn't be as much of an issue at Oakmont, where thousands of trees have been cut to restore the track to a more links-style layout that Europeans favor. Or so you might think.

"The course is barbaric," said Dougherty, who still needed only 11 putts to get through the back nine Thursday. "You're always a little bit weird that if you have a bad day, you're going to embarrass yourself."

He didn't over the first 18 holes, but the idea of a European whose only other two Open finishes are a tie for 52nd and missing the cut and who shot a first-round 80 at last year's PGA Championship lifting anything but a pint or two come Sunday evening are comical at best.

In other words, get to know your leader now: He's 25 and began playing at age 4 by following his father around a local club. The same father who is a huge fan of the Beatles and once owned one of Paul McCartney's first guitars. He sold it and bought his son a flute so he might have something to do in his spare time while traveling for golf.

"It was a lovely flute and what have you, but I don't play anymore," Dougherty said. "I don't know why he (sold McCartney's guitar). Can you imagine me playing the flute? I was young, and he said, 'It will entertain you on the tour, to be able to sit in your room and play the flute.' TGI Friday's is much more fun.

"The reason he had the (guitar) is he knew Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. I feel kind of bad about it. If I win this, I'll get him something better. I'll buy him a house or something."

If he wins, know this: It will be the first European victory at the Open since Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yeah, that long ago.

Ed Graney's column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com

 

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