Skip to main content

Invading Brits aim to end 40-year U.S. Open title drought

By Paul Gittings, CNN
  • Lee Westwood leads strong British challenge in U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
  • Westwood is one of five Britons in top-10 of rankings going into second golf major of 2010
  • Englishmen have won the last two PGA Tour events ahead of this week's tournament
  • Tony Jacklin was the last British player to win the U.S. Open at Hazeltine in 1970

London, England (CNN) -- With five players in the world's top-10 rankings, British golfers have a long-awaited victory in U.S. Open firmly in their sights when the action gets underway at Pebble Beach this week.

It is exactly 40 years since Tony Jacklin lifted the trophy at Hazeltine, and previous to that was Scotsman Willie McFarlane's victory in 1925, so the historical omens are not favorable.

But with Tiger Woods yet to rediscover his best form after his self-imposed exile and with British stars raiding the PGA Tour so successfully this season, there is real optimism in the California air.

The main focus of attention has been on last year's European Tour number one and world number three Lee Westwood, who has been super-consistent in recent majors and came close to his breakthrough victory in this year's Masters where he finished second to Phil Mickelson at Augusta.

Seven U.S. Open headlines to be written

In fact, the 37-year-old Englishman has finished in the top three of the last three majors and finished third in the 2008 U.S. Open.

Westwood warmed up for Pebble Beach with an exciting playoff victory on Sunday at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, his first win on the PGA Tour since 1998, he and believes that Pebble Beach is perfectly suited to his game.

"I was fifth the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble, in 2000. I left a few shots out there in 2000 with some bad decision-making, so I know I can play the course. And my course management is far better these days," he told his official Web site.

"I love the way the USGA sets up their courses to test your accuracy and your long game. The rough is pretty severe again and that should work in my favor. I like the course, the set-up -- and I like the way I'm playing."

The rough is pretty severe again and that should work in my favor. I like the course, the set-up -- and I like the way I'm playing
--Lee Westwood

Confidence indeed, and it will be tested by his marquee pairing for the first two rounds with Woods and Ernie Els of South Africa.

But as the rankings indicate, Westwood will not be the only Brit eyeing a first major, with his fellow Englishmen Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey occupying sixth, eighth and ninth in the list while the exciting young Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland is 10th.

"It's totally without precedent," Bill Elliott, the editor at large for Golf Monthly told CNN's Living Golf.

"We've never been in better shape or had a better chance."

Donald owes his high ranking to consistent play, with four top-10s on the PGA Tour this season, second place in the prestigious PGA Championship on the European Tour, followed by victory in the Madrid Masters.

Westwood relishes St. Jude victory

Elliott said his steady game, while "not the most exciting," is well-suited to the tough course set-up of a U.S. Open. And Donald's win in Spain will have boosted his confidence after gaining the reputation of a player who accumulated prize money rather than titles.

"He's a fantastic golfer and very phlegmatic," Elliott added.

Poulter claimed the biggest victory of his career by winning the WGC-Accenture World Match Play title in Arizona earlier this year, beating Casey in the final, and also secured a top-10 finish in the Masters.

He has missed two cuts in his last three tournaments, but says it is well worth punting on a British player in the second major of the year.

"If you're a betting man, your chances now are better than ever before," Poulter told Sky Sports News.

Talking of betting, Woods, who won by an incredible 15 shots when the U.S. Open was last staged at Pebble Beach in 2000, has not been installed as favorite by most odds makers, with Masters winner Phil Mickelson the preferred choice.

Clearly Tiger's off-course problems have affected the three-time champion, but McIlroy is at the vanguard of a new generation of players for whom reputations mean little.

"Guys at that time, they faced Tiger when he could just turn up and look like he was going to win the tournament," he told Sky Sports News.

"Now it is a little different. I wouldn't be surprised if he played very well this week, I wouldn't be surprised if he won, but the mentality has changed. You go up against Tiger on a Sunday now and you know that you have a good chance to beat him."

McIlroy, barely out of his teens, decided to campaign full-time on the PGA Tour this year and was rewarded by a sensational victory at Quail Hollow after a final-round 62.

McIlroy and Ishikawa signal their intent

Elliott believes Woods' exploits would have have a major influence on the young McIlroy, but that he held no fears for him.

"If you go back to that great U.S. Open in 2000 at Pebble Beach, Rory was 11 when he was watching that at home. He's inspired by Woods, but while others are a bit apprehensive he appears to have no fears."

With Westwood winning in Memphis and compatriot Justin Rose at the Memorial -- the last two PGA tournaments before Pebble Beach -- hopes are high for a British hat-trick.

Rose failed to qualify for the U.S. Open after his Memorial victory, but other Brits in the world's top 50 are also in fine form, with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell winning at Ryder Cup venue Celtic Manor and Welshman Rhys Davies on a hot streak on the European Tour in his rookie season.