NEWPORT, Wales -- Sweden's Alex Noren took over the lead in the Saab Wales Open with a second successive 67 Friday, but defending champion Graeme McDowell is only one behind.
Noren is looking forward to his U.S. Open debut -- it will be his first major in America -- in two weeks after qualifying with a stroke to spare earlier this week at Walton Heath. The 28-year-old from Stockholm won the European Masters two years ago, but dropped from 25th to 85th on the money list last season, and from a high of 50th in the world he now stands 127th.
2011 SAAB WALES OPEN
The 2011 Saab Wales Open is the first big event played at Celtic Manor since last autumn's dramatic Ryder Cup.
"I've always dreamed of playing a U.S. Open and I'm so happy -- so happy," said Noren. "It's such an energy boost."
He birdied four of the last five holes at Celtic Manor on Friday to take over at the top from South African Keith Horne, who after starting with a 64 failed to conjure up a single birdie in his 73.
McDowell also had four birdies in five holes, in his case from the eighth, and just as important was his recovery from under the lip of a bunker to two feet at the short 10th.
"One of the boys said Seve would have been proud of that one," he said. "I'm on a course I enjoy and in a position I enjoy.
"This is absolutely perfect for the U.S. Open,” added McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “I said I just wanted to get in the mix and get the juices flowing and it's kind of mission accomplished."
Welshman Jamie Donaldson is tied for third with France's Victor Dubuisson, but Phillip Price -- another of the home contingent -- had a real setback when he was going well.
On-course television commentator Howard Clark thought Price, 1 under at the time, had driven from in front of the tee at the 15th. When it was checked on video, a two-shot penalty was imposed and he had to go back to the tee to play it again. He birdied it second time, but it meant a bogey on the card and he finished level par.
In the same group, Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher crashed to an outward 44 and with a 79 for 7 over he is certain to remain outside the world's top 50 and likely will miss the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, Colin Montgomerie compiled his worst 36-hole score on European soil in more than 20 years. Montgomerie, Europe's triumphant Ryder Cup captain last October at this same venue, slumped out of the event at 15 over par, following up his opening 78 with a 79
"I'm not 25 any more," said the Scot, who in less than three weeks turns 48. "I think it does show sometimes. It's good being busy, but it takes its toll trying to compete against guys less than half my age only doing this.
"Playing well last week (his seventh place at the BMW PGA Championship last week was his first top-10 in almost three years), I thought I could perform well again,” he added. "But I just played awful. I'm very disappointed not to be playing at the weekend, never mind contending. I'm one of the last names on the board."
The last time Montgomerie had two higher opening scores in Europe was the 1991 Benson and Hedges International at St. Mellion. He shot 80-81 there. However, that was such a tough week that his 161 aggregate was still good enough for 110th place out of 143.
Montgomerie failed to make it through a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifying event on Monday, and now faces the same thing at Sunningdale this coming Monday to try to earn a place in next month's British Open. If he is not part of the British Open next month, it could be that the man with five runner-up finishes -- three U.S. Opens, one British Open and one PGA Championship -- will never play another major.