Europeans falling from the elite

CARLSBAD (California): Padraig Harrington returns to the Match Play Championship as the highest-ranking European in the world. What concerns the Irishman is that he is No 12. 

That means no other European is in the top 10, the first time that's been the case since the world ranking was created in 1986. 

“We don't really deserve to have anyone there,'' Harrington said. “We're not setting the world alight at the moment. We don't have players winning majors. It's a different time now. I don't think there's any cause for concern, but at the moment, the standard has dipped.'' 

That could change this week if Harrington manages to get through six matches at La Costa Resort to win the Accenture Match Play Championship; or if Darren Clarke (No 13) repeats his brilliant performance from 2000, when he dusted Tiger Woods in the 36-hole final. 

Europe had two major champions in 1999 – Jose Maria Olazabal at the Masters and Paul Lawrie, who made up 10 shots in the final round at Carnoustie to win a playoff in the British Open. 

Both are outside the top 64 and didn't qualify for this World Golf Championship. 

CIGAR MAN: Spain's Miguel Jimenez smokes a big cigar as he practices from a sand trap at theWorld Match Play Championship on Tuesday. Jimenez will play Australian Adam Scott in his firstround at the La Costa Resort and Spa in California. – REUTERSpic

Harrington and Clarke are among 15 Europeans in the 64-man field at La Costa, a number that figures to be whittled down when the most fickle format in golf gets under way. 

Woods is the defending champion and has been the No 1 seed since this tournament began in 1999. As an example of how anything goes, he has reached the finals only twice, and two years ago was knocked out in the first round by unheralded Peter O'Malley of Australia. 

“It's the unpredictability of match play,'' Woods said. “If we had to play match play every single week, guys would retire by the age of 40 because of the emotional ups and downs and roller coasters you go through on 18 holes.'' 

Vijay Singh will try to end a streak of the No 2 seed losing in the opening round the last three years. If he gets past Shingo Katayama of Japan, Vijay will try to get out of the second round for the first time. 

Other top seeds are Davis Love III (No 3) against Briny Baird, and Masters champion Mike Weir taking on former PGA champion Rich Beem. 

Some believe it's difficult to play well after a victory, and someone suggested to Beem that Weir might be suffering a post-victory hangover from the Nissan Open. 

“I'll be sending plenty of champagne to his room,'' Beem replied. 

The only champagne Montgomerie gets is before his flight departs from California – usually Wednesday (yesterday), no later than today since he started coming here in 1999. 

“My record here is very, very poor,'' Montgomerie said. “Why? I don't know. Coincidence, hopefully. We'll see if we can do a little bit better this year, but you never know.'' 

Montgomerie plays Nick Price in the first round. 

While Harrington has slipped to No 12 in the world, Montgomerie has bigger problems. Once ranked No 2 in the world behind Greg Norman in 1997, he has fallen to No 57, his lowest position in over a decade. 

“Am I 57th in the world over the last two years? Probably, yes,'' he said. “I'm not complaining about it. I just have to address the situation and do something about it.'' 

He's not worried about no Europeans in the top 10, either. 

“It's not great for us, but at the same time, there's a few players on the fringes,'' Montgomerie said.  

“A good week here or there will get us back in there. As a European player – or (Ryder Cup captain) Bernhard Langer as the case may be, I wouldn't worry unduly about it.'' 

Clarke won another World Golf Championship last year, the NEC Invitational, making him the only other player besides Woods to have won multiple WGCs. – AP 

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