- Associated Press - Saturday, July 17, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND (AP) - It’s already been a rocky year for American golfers, even those not named Tiger Woods. Little that’s happened at the British Open so far suggests that’s about to change.

By the end of the third round, there were five Yanks among the 18 names atop the leaderboard at a venue they’ve practically owned stretching back more than 40 years. The highest place belonged to Dustin Johnson, who was seventh and eight strokes behind South Africa’s Louis (Who?) Oosthuizen heading into Sunday.

Woods won the last two times the Open was held at the Old Course. But with this generation’s alpha-alpha golfing male still searching for his mojo out in the gorse bushes and rough of the Old Course, it’s almost certainly the end of a run that has seen Woods and his countrymen win three straight and six of the last eight at St. Andrews.

The rest of the world hasn’t just taken note. They’re practically giddy with anticipation.

Englishman Ian Poulter kicked things off on the eve of the Open by saying the best Americans were getting long in the tooth _ perhaps a backhanded slap at Woods, who is still just 34 _ and noted that the talented kids who were supposed to replace them were still stuck in the pipeline.

“So,” Poulter reasoned, invoking the royal pronoun, “we have a 15-year window.”

Fellow Englishman Lee Westwood used the occasion of the British golf writers’ dinner Tuesday evening to pile on. First he lauded American Steve Stricker for winning the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., only two days earlier. Then he locked his gaze on Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, where Europeans have won an unprecedented three tournaments in a row _ including the U.S. Open _ and four in a five-week span.

“It’s always nice,” said Westwood, who claimed one of those tour victories, “to see an American win on your tour.”

But it isn’t just Europeans stepping into the void, and it’s not limited to the PGA Tour. Americans still hold down four of the first five spots in the world golf rankings, but Woods is the only one younger than 40. And only two more Yanks are included in the top 20. Small wonder pronunciation guides have become hot items in TV network booths on both sides of the Atlantic.

Queuing up behind Oosthuizen by the end of Saturday was a veritable United Nations _ a fellow South African, two Englishmen, two Swedes, two Spaniards, a German, an Irishman, a Northern Irishman and a Korean amateur.

“Given the dominance of the Americans here over the recent past,” someone asked Woods after his round of 73, “are you surprised there’s not a little more red, white and blue on the board?”

“I haven’t even looked,” Woods replied. “We all know them as just players.”

That’s easy for him to say _ Woods is practically a country unto himself when it comes to majors. He’s won a dozen of the 42 already in the books since 2000, just one fewer than all his countrymen combined. The rest of the world has 17 over that span. But there’s a feeling that unless or until Woods becomes Woods again, the balance of power could shift.

There’s no easy explanation beyond the cyclical nature of the game, much the way that Englishman Nick Faldo and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros led an international cast of characters picking off majors once America’s dominant quartet of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino started sliding toward the senior tour.

“It comes and goes. Form comes and goes,” said Swede Henrik Stenson, who is tied for fourth. “If you look at all the players over a long perspective, everybody goes through ups and downs.

“But sure,” he added, “it’s been a good summer for Europe.”

It could be an even better fall. The Ryder Cup is set for Wales in October, where the same cold, wet and windy conditions often encountered by golfers on the European tour _ and every single day so far at St. Andrews _ could be a big factor.

“I hope,” Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who’s in third place, said with an impish smile, “it’s going to be bad weather, to be honest.”

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org