BETHESDA, Md. – What began as an anomaly has turned into a troubling trend for American golf.
Graeme McDowell became the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open last summer at Pebble Beach. Perhaps more telling was that this was the first time in more than 100 years that no Americans finished among the top three in their national championship.
And that was just the start.
There were no Americans in the top three in the British Open a month later at St. Andrews. And for the first time in Masters history, international players occupied the first three places at Augusta National.
Is American golf on the ropes?
“Are you asking that because I’m the highest-ranked American?” Steve Stricker said Tuesday.
Stricker, a 44-year-old who didn’t even have a full PGA Tour card five years ago, won the Memorial two weeks ago and climbed to No. 4 in the world, making him the top-ranked American. He still lags well behind a pair of Englishmen, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, and Martin Kaymer of Germany.
But the world ranking tells only part of the story.
Americans have never gone more than four majors without winning one of them, and the U.S. Open at Congressional might be their best chance to avoid a record drought since this configuration of Grand Slam events began in 1934.
“I think this tournament will tell a lot,” Stricker said. “If an American can win here, maybe we can gain back some of that momentum. It seems to be pro-Europe every week, every major. It will be interesting this week to see what happens. I think we are on the ropes a little bit. Everybody sees it. Everybody talks about it.”
Based on recent times, history might not be on the side of the Stars & Stripes outside the nation’s capital.
Over the last 10 years, the U.S. Open is the one major where Americans have had the least amount of success. They have won only four times since 2001, with Tiger Woods capturing two of them. And he’s not even at Congressional this week, out with a bum left leg.
It was only four years ago when it seemed that Europeans couldn’t win a big one. Padraig Harrington preached patience, saying golf runs in cycles and Europe would get its due.
Ernie Els couldn’t agree more.
“Everything happens in cycles, and I can see it happening again now,” he said. “I remember back in the early ’90s, Europe was dominating like they are dominating now in the world rankings. They’ve definitely got the upper hand at the moment, and it will probably change again in the future.”
The trick is figuring who the future is for American golf.
Right behind Stricker in the world ranking is Phil Mickelson, the last American to win a major when he beat Westwood at The Masters last year. Mickelson turns 41 on Thursday, although he still thinks he has several years and more majors ahead of him.
Even so, Mickelson has been spending a lot of time lately trying to groom younger players, mostly for Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup matches, but also to get them sharp for majors.
He played Tuesday with Dustin Johnson, regarded by many as the most talented of the Americans under 30. Joining them were Jeff Overton and Hunter Mahan, whose three wins include a World Golf Championship at Firestone last year.
“I’m actually very encouraged with where our American golfers are, especially the young players,” Mickelson said. “We have a plethora of great players coming up. And I think at the forefront is a guy like Dustin Johnson.”
Johnson very easily could have won two majors last year, and this wouldn’t even be a discussion. He took a three-shot lead into the final round at Pebble Beach until a shot in the bushes and a shot onto the beach left him with an 82. Then came the PGA Championship, where he was not aware he was in a bunker and grounded his club, a two-shot penalty that knocked him out of a playoff.
Kaymer wound up beating Bubba Watson in the playoff.
Johnson is aware of the American drought, but only because he keeps getting asked about it.
“It’s not like we’re not trying or not playing well,” he said. “I think the American guys are playing really good. A lot of things have to go right to win a major. Obviously, the guys that have won the last four majors have played really good golf.”
Mahan knew the Americans had not won a major since Mickelson at the Masters. He was surprised to hear that only two Americans, Watson and Zach Johnson, have been in the top three at the last four majors.
“It’s the fashionable thing now to be European. Everyone is pumping that up,” Mahan said. “I don’t know about that. I think guys like Stricker, Matt Kuchar … I don’t see who’s playing better than those guys.”
Donald would be one of them, for sure. He brings 10 consecutive top 10s into the U.S. Open, which includes wins in the European Tour flagship event at Wentworth and his first WGC title at the Match Play Championship in Arizona. Westwood won consecutive tournaments overseas. Kaymer started his year with an eight-shot win against a strong field in Abu Dhabi that included Mickelson.
Along with the four majors, Europe also owns The Ryder Cup.
“I think the Ryder Cup has created a line there now that wasn’t there before,” Mahan said. “There’s a little bit more friction – maybe not friction, but there’s a little more to it now – and that’s good. The thing we need in golf are rivalries, but good rivalries.”
Perhaps the Americans getting shut out in the majors was inevitable.
Not until the world ranking became more accepted did international players get much access to the three American-based majors. When the ranking made its debut in 1986, only three Europeans played in the Masters that year.
With few exceptions, the PGA Tour attracts the best that each continent has to offer.
“It’s obvious that world golf as a whole has become so much stronger, and that international and European golf has become world class,” Mickelson said. “So although international golf has really taken off, American golf is still in very good shape.”
That might be easier to believe if one of them were holding the trophy on Sunday at Congressional.