England’s pride: Home team looks to shine at Open

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SANDWICH, ENGLAND (AP) - Any other week, the flagsticks at Royal St. George’s would be adorned with the red-and-white English banner.

How appropriate.

This is the hub of English golf, a course that’s hosted more British Opens that any outside of Scotland. And, boy, the home team is sure poised to shine in the latest version of golf’s oldest major championship.

Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world rankings. Lee Westwood is right on his heels at No. 2. Paul Casey and Ian Poulter are both in the top 20. Four other Englishmen from the top 100 qualified for the Open.

“English golf is very strong right now,” Donald said Tuesday. “Obviously in the world rankings, with myself and Lee heading that list. We’ve both been having good years so far, and there’s a bunch of other English guys that probably haven’t played as well as us but certainly have the potential to win.”

The numbers sure look a lot more promising than the did eight years ago, the last time an Open was held at Royal St. George’s. Back then, there were no English players in the top 10 and only two (Casey and Justin Rose) in the top 50. Donald was way down at No. 117. Westwood wasn’t even in the top 200.

“I guess now,” Donald surmised, gauging the English hopes for this Open, “is as good a time as any.”

Westwood certainly realizes how significant it would be for an Englishman to hoist the claret jug at a spot just up the road from the cliffs of Dover.

“You know, it’s named after St. George, so you can’t get much more English than that,” he said, smiling. “It’s the biggest championship in the world as far as I’m concerned. It would mean everything, really, to win this championship.”

Donald has a crafty, delicate short game that should be a huge asset on this lumpy seaside course. Westwood is as good as anyone off the tee, and he’s certainly got plenty of experience contending in golf’s biggest events. Casey tied for third a year ago at St. Andrews, while the dashing Poulter was the runner-up in 2008.

Any of them has the game to be get their name engraved on the historic chalice.

“This is the best I’ve played,” said Donald, who solidified his No. 1 ranking with a four-stroke win at the Scottish Open last weekend. “This is the most consistent I’ve been throughout my whole game. Not just around the greens, but tee to green is getting more and more solid. I think that’s been a key to me playing well and notching up some victories.”

Of course, one key victory has eluded Donald. And Westwood. All the top English contenders, in fact.

None of them has won a major championship _ no small stumbling block, especially when one starts to lug around the burden of being regarded as the best player without the most coveted of titles.

That dreaded title probably belongs to the 38-year-old Westwood, who has finished in the top three at all four majors without pulling off that breakthrough win. His plight prompted Colin Montgomerie _ certainly an expert on the close-but-no-cigar syndrome _ to declare publicly that Westwood might be running out of time.

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