Golf’s inscrutable pendulum seems to be swinging back toward Europe. Just two years ago, the game seemed to have abandoned its birthplace. No European had won a major since Scotland’s Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999, a skid of 35 consecutive majors entering the 2007 British Open. With the Tiger and Phil show dominating the sport’s headlines, the future of the European Tour seemed iffy.
The PGA Tour’s trans-Atlantic sister had lost its best young player, Sergio Garcia, to America. And Colin Montgomerie’s 72nd-hole bumble at Winged Foot in 2006 seemed emblematic of the entire continent’s golf fortunes. An aging Monty represented the last vestige of Europe’s faded golden era, a glorious decade connecting the 1980s to the 1990s when European giants Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal defined golf’s landscape.
To some degree, European success at the game’s highest level was confined to the glorified exhibition match played every other year as golf’s back-seat bunch rarely failed to beat the United States in the Ryder Cup.
How times have changed.
Choose just about any measuring stick other than the Ryder Cup, and Europeans boast the bulk of golf’s current momentum.
“I can’t explain it,” European Tour chief executive George O’Grady said in an interview with The Washington Times. “But there are certainly a number of Europeans playing with a world of confidence right now. That said, there’s still no question who the undisputed No. 1 is, so I don’t think we’re getting too carried away.”
Sure, Tiger Woods still has a stranglehold on golf’s top spot. But Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won two majors in 2008. Paddy snapped the continental major drought at Carnoustie in 2007 and then picked up player of the year honors on both tours by capturing the British Open and PGA Championship. The European Tour even deserves partial credit for Angel Cabrera as the longtime home circuit of the late-blooming two-time major winner from Argentina.
Youth is available, too, in 20-year-old Rory McIlroy. The irrepressible talent with matching unbridled locks is golf’s prodigy du jour, exiting May with six top-10 finishes and a victory in just his second season as a professional.
In terms of outrageous story lines, the European circuit has trumped the PGA Tour at almost every turn this season; two amateurs have won in Europe this season (Danny Lee and Shane Lowry), marking the first such amateur double in either tour’s history.
The world’s hottest player? That honor belongs to Britain’s Paul Casey, who became the season’s first three-time winner with his victory last week at the PGA Championship. The 31-year-old Casey boasts 10 top-20 finishes in 12 starts this season, surging from 41st to third in the world rankings by earning more points than any other player in 2009.
“Casey is so powerful,” O’Grady said. “The 17th hole at Wentworth measures 600-odd yards, and he’s getting home quite comfortably with a 3-wood and a 4-iron. He’s not quite Tiger Woods, but he’s in the same mold in terms of fitness and power. I think Tiger is to be commended for that because he’s given these guys the template for what is required in terms of conditioning. If you want to meet these guys away from the course now, your best opportunity is in the gym at dawn. They all work ferociously hard, and that’s down to Tiger I think.”
Europe even seems to have temporarily co-opted the spotlight at the PGA Tour’s premier event. Three weeks ago, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson put on a European encore at the Players Championship, following Garcia into the winner’s circle at Sawgrass.
Make no mistake, Europe isn’t threatening to take golf back to 1992, when the top five slots in the rankings for five consecutive weeks belonged to Woosnam, Faldo, Olazabal, Ballesteros and Langer. But with Woods still working out his post-knee operation kinks and Mickelson out indefinitely, the trend is undeniably clear: Europe looks to be the bull in a bear golf market. So don’t be surprised if Europeans dominate the season’s final three major leader boards.
“Part of it is definitely cyclical,” O’Grady said. “But I think perhaps the global nature of our tour helps. When you’ve slogged halfway around the world and encountered all sorts of courses in various conditions, playing on those perfectly manicured courses in the States must be like going to heaven, so to speak. Our guys get on greens like that, and they lap it up.
“And part of it is a bit like when [Tony] Jacklin and Seve lifted European golf several decades ago. That led to a real swell of confidence over here and spurred on a brigade of successful players. I think we have a great nucleus of guys right now who are brimming with confidence and game to have a go with anyone.”