Some players keep eye on World Cup

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Focus -- pure, unadulterated concentration -- is a quality possessed by only the elite athletes. Consider the monumental distractions at work on Sergio Garcia on Thursday as the U.S. Open began:

Not only is the Black Course at Bethpage State Park brutally difficult -- as the mostly black first-round numbers on the scoreboard attested -- but Garcia had his girlfriend, tennis star Martina Hingis, in tow as well.

And then there's this minor issue of the World Cup soccer tournament.

Garcia, according to reports, has been getting up early and watching his Spaniards boot their way through Group B play. Of the 32 teams that began play, only Spain and Brazil were finished the first round with a perfect 3-0 record.

Clearly, the reign of Spain is close to Garcia's heart.

"When I'm out there I'm not thinking about Raul's goals, or any of those guys," Garcia said. "I'm thinking about scoring my own goals. And that's what I try. And when I finish practicing and everything, of course I love to -- I'm a big sports fanatic and I love to watch golf and tennis and I love to watch soccer. It's good fun. Hopefully, I'll be out there on Sunday and be able to watch the game."

Can Spain win?

"Yeah," he said. "They have a chance. It's difficult, but you never know how it's going to come out."

Like Garcia, fellow countryman Jose Maria Olazabal played nearly as well as his favorite international side. Olazabal shot an impressive 1-over-par 71. Nationalism, apparently, is inspiring stuff.

Consider this: The top four foreign-born players after the first round -- Garcia, K.J. Choi, Padraig Harrington and Nick Faldo -- all root for World Cup teams that are still very much alive. Coincidence?

By the middle of the morning on Thursday, 12 of the 16 qualifying spots already had been claimed: Group A (Denmark, Senegal), Group B (Spain, Paraguay), Group C (Brazil, Turkey), Group E (Germany, Ireland), Group F (Sweden, England) and Group G (Mexico, Italy). Friday morning, the United States and South Korea joined the final 16, along with Japan and Belgium.

While 105 of the 156 golfers here are Americans, World Cup fever hasn't overwhelmed them quite yet.

On Tuesday, Tiger Woods was asked if he had been following the World Cup results. Further, he was asked if he had any favorite players, like Ronaldo, Brad Friedel or David Beckham.

"You've got the wrong country," he said, laughing. "Hopefully, our country can make it all the way."

Our country? All the way? Woods did not sound like a man who was following World Cup all that closely. Maybe he's using all that extra time to focus on Bethpage Black, which could explain why he shot a 67 Thursday and remains the favorite here.

The international players, however, are very keen on the Cup. Quite a few of them, it turns out, have rooting interests intact.

Choi, the lone golfer here born in South Korea, was as surprising in his first round as the host nation's soccer squad. He shot a 1-under 69, throwing his name on the leaderboard early. South Korea (2-0-1) eliminated Portugal on Friday morning, ensuring the U.S. would advance despite its loss to Poland.

While Japan finished unbeaten (2-0-1) and has raised the level of excitement to hysteria in the homeland, the six Japanese golfers here are said to be focusing on their performance on the course. Shigeki Maruyama, for one, is friends with some of the soccer professionals, but not so much as to rise at 2:25 a.m. Friday for Japan's game with Tunisia. He might have some free time on his hands if Japan advances; he shot a 76 Thursday. Meanwhile, Taichiro Kiyota, who turned 22 Wednesday, shot 73, tying him for low-amateur honors.

After collapsing on the final regulation hole in the 1999 British Open -- he took a triple-bogey to allow a three-way playoff before losing to Paul Lawrie -- France's Jean Van de Velde became the poster boy for French Toast. Well, now he has some company. Defending champion France, among the pre-tournament favorites, failed to score a goal in three games and was eliminated in stunning fashion. The similarities between the two meltdowns were eerie.

Van de Velde, however, played better than his country did. At one point, he was tied for the lead at 2-under with Garcia and Woods and eventually faded and finished with a 71.

Argentina was the other big disappointment in World Cup, winning only one game on the way to an early vacation. Jose Coceres was similarly sluggish out of the box, shooting 77 in the first round.

There were other mutual successes:

  • Denmark (2-0-1) is represented here by Thomas Bjorn, who fashioned a solid 71. Sweden (1-0-2) got good rounds out of Robert Karlsson (71), Jesper Parnevik (72) and Niclas Fasth (72). Germany (2-0-1)
    has Bernhard Langer, who came in at 72. Ireland (1-0-2) was led by Harrington (70).

    Faldo -- who shot an impressive even-par 70 -- didn't watch England's previous match, the draw Wednesday with Nigeria at nil. Still, he's a fan.

    "They are through, I know, it's great," Faldo said of the Brits' 1-0-2 record and a tie with Sweden with five points. "I'm pleased with the boys. So move on, chaps. Determination."

    Faldo met England's star, Beckham, at a party and offered him a free lesson.

    "I said, 'Come on, do you want to go to a lesson? We'll go to a nice private place, nobody will know,' " Faldo told Beckham. "He said, 'I need that. I need some lessons.' I could be the official England golf coach."