Europeans are excelling, just not the ones you'd expect
Many experts predicted that a European finally won a major this year, but few forecast that Anthony Wall, Greg Owen and Graeme McDowell would be outplaying such big names as Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington.
HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- Eager to break a seven-year drought in the majors, the Europeans figured this Open Championship might be their best chance yet to lift a winner's trophy on Sunday.
After all, they had 15 of the top 50 players in the world rankings, sufficient numbers to knock off the dominant Americans and hold off pesky countries such as Australia and South Africa.
Well, as the sun set on Royal Liverpool, the home continent -- heck, the home country -- was well represented at the top of the leader board after Thursday's opening round. But it sure wasn't the names anyone suspected.
Instead of someone such as Colin Montgomerie, little-known Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland was holding down the top spot with a 6-under 66.
The English cheered on a couple of locals just one stroke back: Greg Owen and Anthony Wall, not higher-ranked players David Howell and Luke Donald.
The Spanish chipped in, too, but it's not two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal who shot a 67. That score was turned in by Miguel Angel Jimenez, the cigar-chomping, joke-cracking, ponytail-wearing prankster known as "The Mechanic" for his love of cars.
For those who pay attention to the world rankings, Jimenez is the highest-ranked player of the bunch, way down in the 47th position.
Owen is 66th, Wall 89th and McDowell a lowly 103rd. Hardly the sort of players who usually contend at a major tournament, though the leader actually envisioned it happening during the practice rounds earlier in the week, when the names from each group were put on the scoreboard as they came to the final hole.
"It was right up there at the top," McDowell remembered, "and I was looking up thinking that it would be pretty nice to see that this weekend. And obviously coming down today and seeing my name up there, it's a lot of fun. I know it's Thursday, but it still excites me."
Except for Spain's Sergio Garcia (the world's No. 9 player shot a 68) and Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke (No. 23 turned in a 69), the top European players didn't fare especially well.
No. 10 Howell and No. 11 Donald both struggled to 74s on a warm, sunny day that provided the sort of prime scoring conditions rarely seen on a seaside links course, which count on pesky rain and bone-chilling wind to provide part of the defense.
No. 13 Montgomerie, who hoped to get off to a good start after squandering a chance to win his first career major at the U.S. Open, slogged to an uninspiring 73. So did Olazabal, ranked one spot lower that Monty.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, 18th in the world and another player who made a strong run at Winged Foot last month, was especially disappointing with a 75.
But the no-namers made up for it. Especially McDowell, who got some timely advice at a local pub the night before.
"I was having a couple of beers last night with some friends," the Irishman passed along, "and some local lad came up to me and basically kind of gives me that old, 'Oh, you're Graeme McDowell and stuff.' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, [he wants an] autograph."'
Instead, the man mentioned that McDowell appeared a little out of kilter at the top of his backswing.
"Get a bit of work done on that, will you," he told the golfer.
"Fantastic, thanks a lot for that," McDowell replied.
"I was kind of joking with the guys I was with: 'If I shoot 66 here tomorrow, I guess I'll be wanting to see that guy on the range Friday morning,"' McDowell said.
He'd like to schedule an appointment for 7:00 a.m. sharp.
Owen is best known for throwing away his first PGA Tour title at Bay Hill this year when he three-putted from 3 feet on the next-to-last hole.
"It still hurts now even thinking about it," he said. "You know that things happen, a bad bounce here or there or anywhere. I just hope I'll never do it again."
Though he's now a regular on the American-based tour, Owen lives only a couple of hours away from Royal Liverpool.
"It's nice to have a few friends and family, because I don't get many in the states," Owen said. "It's nice to come back and feel the support."
Of course, the majors are filled with one-day wonders, players who pulled it together for 18 holes but quickly faded back into the hinterlands.
Tiger Woods was only one stroke behind McDowell. Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Tom Lehman were two down. And three back was Phil Mickelson, who's won two of the last three majors and would have captured the other one, too, if not for a double-bogey on the final hole of the U.S. Open.
On the other hand, the Open has produced some unlikely champions over the years, including Paul Lawrie at Carnoutie in 1999. He watched Jean Van de Velde's historic collapse on the final hole, then beat the Frenchman in a playoff.
Lawrie is the last European to win a major, a drought that reached 27 straight events at last month's U.S. Open -- the longest dry spell since the 1970s.
"I just want to be up there on Sunday and enjoy myself coming down to the last hole," McDowell said, speaking for an entire continent. "It would be pretty nice."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.