LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND | Carruthers, old chap. Pay attention. This is beginning to look worrying. It’s too soon to panic but not too soon to say that things golfing just aren’t what they were and not what we have come to expect. Indeed, they aren’t what they should be. Why and how has the bloom gone off European golf?
Truth to tell, those of a European persuasion have become sated by success these past two years. In 2010, Europeans won two of that year’s major championships – Graeme McDowell from Northern Ireland the 2010 US Open and Martin Kaymer from Germany that year’s PGA Championship. Lee Westwood finished second in both The Masters and the Open, Rory McIlroy achieved his first victory on US soil at Congressional and that autumn Europe regained the Ryder Cup. It was perhaps the grandest season for European golf since the days of Harry Vardon, James Braid and JH Taylor, The Great Triumvirate, at the turn of the previous century.
The success continued last year. When Charl Schwartzel, the South African who had been playing mostly on the European Tour, birdied the last four holes to snatch victory in The Masters, it meant that Europeans or men who played on the European Tour had triumphed in the four major championships since the previous year’s Masters.
With Tiger Woods in a hiatus, US golf was being eclipsed. In June, McIlroy ran away with the US Open, and in July Darren Clarke won the Open at Sandwich. The last American to win a major championship had been Phil Mickelson at Augusta in 2010, when, incidentally, Westwood was second. There was no Ryder Cup in 2011 (though there was a Walker Cup, won by GB&I, and a Solheim Cup, won by Europe) and Luke Donald won the money list on both sides of the Atlantic, the first man ever to do this.
And then, in the steamy heat of August, in the hometown of the great amateur Bobby Jones, the revival in the fortunes of US golfers began. Keegan Bradley won the PGA from Jason Dufner. In April this year Bubba Watson beat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff for The Masters and in June, his fellow American Webb Simpson took the US Open.
“This time last year if you had looked at both Ryder Cup sides, Europe looked miles the better,” Frank Nobilo, the perceptive Golf Channel expert said last week. “Tiger Woods was still in his hiatus, Mickelson was not playing well. All the best young players seemed to be European. It was lop-sided. Not any more. What is happening in the US now, the way a new generation of players is emerging, reminds me of what happened in Europe 10 years or so ago when Westy and Darren came through.”
There is cause for concern about Europe’s three leading players, Donald, McIlroy and Westwood, who are ranked numbers one, two and three in the world. Donald who missed the cut at the US Open, made a half decent fist of competing at Lytham. Westwood at least qualified for the last two rounds of the Open, which had been beyond him 12 months earlier. McIlroy started well but had two ho-hum rounds in the middle, a 75 and a 73.
Westwood will be 40 next April and for all his magnificent consistency in the past 13 major championships in which he has competed, he faces the doleful statistic that only seven men in the history of the game have won their first major championship aged 40 or older. Westwood, sensing how time is running out for him, is selling his estate in Worksop and moving himself and his family to Florida to enjoy better practice facilities in better weather.
McIlroy seems to be more erratic than he should be, winning the Honda Classic in March but having a wretched May and early June in which he missed the cut at The Players, the Memorial, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the US Open. His vitality remains as does his popularity. You had only to witness the frenzy that followed him wherever he went at Lytham to realise that. But there is frailty about his game currently that is worrying. Notwithstanding that he is only two months past his 23rd birthday, shouldn’t he be more consistent?
In short, the bubble of European confidence has been pricked. Actually, it was overconfidence. European golfers were good but not that good. Europe were never clear favourites for the Ryder Cup as some would have them. Narrow favourites, possibly. Underdogs, considering the event is to be played in Chicago, probably. But certainly not favourites.
If the fortunes of the two continents could be described in terms of a children’s seesaw, then last year the hopes of Europe had been high and those of the US had been low. Now the seesaw has levelled out. At this moment, of the two Ryder Cup captains, Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal, it is Love who has the right to feel happier.