There was, predictably, a great deal of post-U.S Open discussion regarding what has become of American golf pros in the global game. Five consecutive majors have been won by an international player, and the alarm bells have sounded. Throw out Tiger and Phil, and Americans have accounted for just four of the past 30 major titles.
My concern is not Americans generally, but American kids … pros under the age of 30. Two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange got me thinking about this during Sunday’s Open radiocast when he asked: “Where are the American 20-year-olds?” McIlroy, Schwartzel, Kaymer and Oosthuizen are all under the age of 30. Why aren’t our twentysomethings winning on the big stage?
It is undeniable that the U.S. has the best junior golf system in the world. The American Junior Golf Association is the envy of golf organizations around the world. Its mission is to get kids into college on scholarships via their performance on the course. The AJGA is developing the next generation, and doing an excellent job of it.
But that development slows over the next four years. The youngsters are not progressing; they are not developing better skills. Largely, this is because the list of schools and coaches who can take a very talented junior and make him a better player is very short.
Consider the last decade of Fred Haskins award winners, a proxy for college golf excellence. The only major champion among the bunch is Graeme McDowell, who you might recall grew up in Northern Ireland. What have the rest of these players done? A few PGA Tour wins, but not much else.
Part of the problem is the team nature of college golf. Coaches are not recruiting kids to win tournaments, but instead are trying to assemble teams that win conference championships and contend for national championships. So little attention is paid to individual performance that the college powers-that-be have gutted the NCAA individual championship. What once was an important title has been reduced to 54 holes and rendered virtually meaningless.
Then there is what one prominent college coach labeled as “coddling.” The kids have a support system that includes the coach, tutors, trainers, instructors, etc. On course, some coaches’ labor over every single shot with players, slowing play and eroding the player’s confidence in his own judgment. None of this prepares the player for the cruel world that is professional golf.
The PGA Tour shares some responsibility as well. Week in and week out, the pros face the same kind of bomber’s paradise. Blast it off the tee as far as you can, then wedge it up on the green. Very few PGA Tour golf courses require real shot-making skills, and so they go unlearned. But in most major championships, especially the Open Championship, shot-making skills are a prerequisite to winning. American kids are clueless.
Speaking of the Open Championship, our young pros are simply not very worldly. It is entirely possible that a talented American college player will graduate without ever having hit a shot outside the United States. Imagine their reaction when they arrive at St. Andrews for the first time. Shock and horror.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is athleticism. Kaymer, Schwartzel, even Rory (although he doesn’t look it) are really good athletes. They don’t aimlessly lift weights, they train specifically for golf. They are very serious about diet and nutrition. The American college golf system is incapable of providing this kind of education.
This is not to suggest that our kids should do what Rory did and leave school at 16 and turn pro. American society values the college experience and education. It’s not for everyone, as Sean O’Hair has proven. But O’Hair is the exception, not the rule. Even Tiger Woods spent two years on campus at Stanford.
Strange told me he left college after three years because it was time to get serious about golf. Amazing when you consider he was at Wake Forest during a time when the Deacons were the program in America, championship contenders year in and year out. His 1974 NCAA championship team has been called the “greatest of all time,” and he won the individual title that year.
Yet Strange felt he had to leave to get better, and he didn’t become a really elite player until he was in his 30s.
So while Rickie Fowler was studying and playing golf at Oklahoma State, McIlroy was traveling the world, learning to play, learning to hit golf shots, figuring out how to survive on his own. He was developing a maturity and toughness beyond his years. Fowler and his ilk may get there, but typically not until their 30th birthday has passed.
This column has more questions than answers. But lots of things have to change … have to change if we want our best young American pros to go head-to-head with Rory and that bunch and win.