Casey, Levet Share Lead at British Open

Thursday, July 15th 2004, 5:48 am
By: News On 6

TROON, Scotland (AP) _ The most international of Opens lived up to its reputation in the opening round Thursday, offering up an eclectic collection of international players at the top and a pair of unlikely leaders at 5-under 66 in England's Paul Casey and France's Thomas Levet.

Early in Friday's second round, there was still an international flavor on the leaderboard. But one famous American _ Tiger Woods _ joined them with a pair of birdies that moved him into the hunt.

Woods, winless in his last eight major championships, was two shots off the lead after making birdies on the fourth and sixth holes and saving par in between with a 15-footer on No. 5.

With the wind picking up at Royal Troon, Woods was at 3-under, trailing Casey and Levet, who had yet to tee off. Also at 5-under through nine holes was Michael Campbell of New Zealand.

Woods shot an opening round 1-under 70 on Thursday, a day in which the nearest American to the lead was tied for 13th.

If you're keeping track _ and they like to do that at the Open _ the last time an American wasn't in the top 10 on the leaderboard after the first round was in 1959 when American Bob Sweeny was tied for 59th.

That has something to do both with the increasingly better play of international players _ who have won the last six tournaments on the PGA Tour this year _ and the fact that 52 PGA Tour pros didn't even try to qualify to fly across the ocean for a major championship.

Before this, Americans had been on a nice streak in the Open, winning six of the last nine as well as the last five held at Troon.

``You would think you'd aspire to play in the greatest championship, the one with the most history,'' said Rich Beem, who is one of the Americans tied at 13th after an opening 69. ``This is one of the great tournaments we'll ever play, if not the best tournament in the world.''

Some up-and-coming international players certainly felt that way after the wind off the Firth of Clyde died down and Royal Troon played about as easy as it will get in the opening round.

Ernie Els had a hole-in-one, England's Gary Evans had a rare double eagle and 56 players ended the day at par or better.

The shots were spectacular, and the scoring wasn't bad, either.

Campbell was a stroke back with a 67, while a veritable United Nations of players that included Vijay Singh, K.J. Choi and Scottish amateur Stuart Wilson were another shot behind at 68.

``I saw my name on the board, and it was tremendous,'' said Wilson, the British Amateur champion.

It wasn't as easy for a pair of Americans whose names always seem to pop up whenever there is talk about a major championship.

Woods had to make two key par saves to finish with a 70, the first time he has broken par in the opening round of a major since the 2002 PGA Championship.

``As easy as you'll ever see it,'' Woods said about Royal Troon.

Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion, played in the tamest conditions, but could manage only a 73.

``I didn't hit the ball the way I wanted to and I didn't putt that well,'' Mickelson said.

Casey, a 26-year-old, played in the same group with Mickelson and put on a good show, finishing with birdies on two of the last three holes and raising hopes of a British gallery that has gone five years without one of its own holding the claret jug.

``I still left quite a few shots on the golf course,'' Casey said. ``It could have been very, very low.''

The crowd liked Casey, but loved Colin Montgomerie, who turned in a nifty 69 on the course he played hundreds of times as a youth growing up in the area.

Urged on at every turn, Montgomerie survived a mid-round crisis to bag a couple of birdies coming in and get in contention for the tournament he so desperately wants to win.

Montgomerie has played in 14 Opens and never finished better than eighth. He's going through a divorce and a tough spell in his career, but that has made the crowd seem to love Monty even more.

He said he got a boost from the loud roar that greeted him on the 12th green after he had just dropped three shots in the last two holes. Montgomerie promptly birdied the hole and added another one at 15 to post his score.

``There's a lot more support from what's happened to me the last few months and they respect that,'' Montgomerie said. ``I'm delighted to have it. I think it enabled me to break 70.''

Montgomerie seems determined to have good memories from this Open, not like the last time the Open was held at Troon in 1997. Then, the son of the former club secretary imploded under the pressure for an opening-round 76.

``I went out with one thought, and I told my caddie on the first tee, `Whatever happens today we're going to enjoy ourselves,''' Montgomerie said.