- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Europe looks primed to impact the golf world a little more often than just every other September.

The game’s tide has turned decidedly toward the ancient side of the Atlantic. For the first time since the inception of the official world rankings in 1986, Europe boasts more players ranked among the game’s top 30 (11) than the United States (seven). The Americans are slipping in more than just the Ryder Cup. And a host of talented Europeans roll into this week’s 135th British Open poised to snap a major victory drought dating back to Paul Lawrie’s triumph at the 1999 British Open.

“Times are changing,” Nick Dougherty, a 24-year-old British comer, said Monday. “We’ve already nicked the Ryder Cup a few times now to call it our own. Our time is coming, and it could be this year.”

Dougherty hopes to join a slew of youngsters like David Howell (world No. 10), Luke Donald (No. 11), Paul Casey (No. 29), Johan Edfors (No. 46) and Ian Poulter (No. 57) who have blossomed at just the right time to join staples Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez on a European team that will be favored when the Ryder Cup begins at K Club in two months (Sept. 18-24).

Major spoils could come even sooner for the hungry Europeans, who haven’t tasted ultimate success in the last 31 Slams.

“With such a strong mix of experienced veterans and talented youngbloods, one would think that black mark will soon be off the books,” said Montgomerie, the 43-year-old elder statesman and undisputed emotional captain of the European front. “The sport has never been so healthy on this side of the Atlantic.”

Montgomerie and Harrington mounted serious challenges at last month’s 106th U.S. Open, tying for second and finishing fifth, respectively. But perhaps almost as impressive was the depth of the European charge at Winged Foot. Five other Europeans finished among the top 21: Poulter (tied for 16th), Donald (T16), Casey (15), Howell (T16) and Olazabal (T21).

Among that group of Open extras, perhaps the trio of Donald, Howell and Casey offer the greatest hope at Hoylake.

The 28-year-old Donald, who plays almost exclusively in the United States, won the Honda Classic earlier this season and has finished outside the top 25 just twice in 13 PGA Tour starts. Donald warmed up for this week’s fray at 7,258-yard, par-72 Hoylake by tying for second at last week’s Scottish Open and is second only to Harrington among European threats at Hoylake according to the oddsmakers (25-1).

Howell and Casey have won twice each on the European Tour this season, with the latter reeling off a stunning 11 consecutive stroke-play finishes in the top 20.

And none of those youngsters is even the hottest player in Europe. That honor clearly belongs to Edfors, a 30-year-old Swede who has collected a tour-best three victories in Europe this season. The last of those uprisings came just last week at Loch Lomond, where Edfors stared down Clarke, Bjorn and Donald on Sunday.

“It’s been a dream season, a wonderful year, and I hope that it continues,” said Edfors, a spotlight-loving sensation who models for Puma in his spare time. “I am broke no more.”

The story is far different for the Americans, who do seem bankrupt when it comes to up-and-coming talent.

Only one U.S. player under 30 is ranked in the world top 60: 26-year-old Lucas Glover at No. 49. And a strong argument can be made that the most decorated twentysomething American is onetime British Open stunner Ben Curtis, the 29-year-old who consummated his claret jug shocker at Sandwich (2003) with a victory at last month’s Booz Allen Classic.

Despite the handful of U.S. rookies likely to appear on Tom Lehman’s Ryder Cup roster, none has particularly distinguished credentials.

“One of the things with the U.S. media is that they have been crying out for a while asking where are the new, young, up-and-coming players, but they’re here now,” Harrington said in defense of the anonymous cluster of Americans who would make the team as Ryder Cup rookies off the current standings (Glover, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson, Brett Wetterich and Vaughn Taylor). “Now, all of a sudden, the U.S. media is asking where are the experienced players. Well, you can’t have both. These are the guys showing the form, and that’s why they’re in the team.”

The disconcerting fact is that unlike Europe’s surging gang, none of the American youngsters even has a mildly compelling record or ranking, much less any major history. Of the five aforementioned Americans competing for a slot on Lehman’s team, only Taylor boasts more than one PGA Tour victory. And both of his came at the Reno-Tahoe Open against laughably weak fields.

There’s simply no way to disguise the power shift across the Atlantic.

And after the power trio of Tiger, Phil and Jim Furyk, America’s golf future at Hoylake and beyond looks as dim as Europe’s appears lustrous.

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