Europe Fab Five Fades Into One Lone Light

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Scott Hoch was 45 years old when he won at Greensboro last week, and that put the mind to working. Fifteen years ago, when Hoch was 30, the hottest guys carrying a 7-iron were Europeans. There were five of them, each born within a year of the other. They won tournaments, majors and Ryder Cups. It looked like they would own golf the next 20 years. But my, what has happened to them as season after season has unfolded?
 
They are all 43 now, hardly the age to pack up the clubs and go sit by the fireplace. And yet, that is where Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle appear headed. Nick Faldo doesn't appear to be too far off. Ian Woosnam has been wracked by injuries and he hasn't been a European Tour threat in five years. Bernhard Langer, alone among the group of five, is making the big purses, having earned almost a million dollars this year while playing in America.
 
Lyle was the first to drop off. A bewildering kink appeared in his game shortly after he won the Masters in 1988 lead to a series of mystifying finishes. He still hits the ball prodigious distances, but somewhere he lost his compass heading. The putter went south the same time the irons did, and 69s became 73s. He tried the American tour for awhile, it didn't work, and he began playing any place that would put out the welcome mat. Unfortunately, it appears the Gentle Man is finished.
 
Ballesteros no longer can make paychecks. He apparently didn't think he was good enough when he had the No. 1 game in the '80s, for whatever reason. He listened to everyone in the locker room, everyone on the driving range, finally everyone in the grocery store. He's gone to every top instructor that there is, never paying one. He now is, in a word, hopeless.
 
Faldo is another puzzle. He was, without a doubt, the greatest player walking upright in the late '80s and early '90s. He began to slip when he moved to the U.S. in 1995. By 1997, when he ended his professional relationship with instructor David Leadbetter, the metamorphosis was complete. Since then, he has gone through instructors almost as fast as Ballesteros. Some blame a confusing personal life, some say he was too much of a mechanical man. Whatever the reason, his plummet has been the biggest surprise.
 
Faldo's big problem is that he just doesn't get much distance out of his swing. His average swat is 261 yards, 189th on the Tour rankings. He ranks first in fairways hit, his putting is much better, but he sacrifices two and three clubs in length to other players. That, simply, is too much to overcome.
 
Woosnam has, in his own words, been 'lazy.' And he has been plagued with a problematic back. He has tried the short putter, the long putter, now back to the short putter. He may win again, but his days of being consistently successful are through.
 
Langer, alone among the five, has been surprisingly good since his return to the U.S. this year from Europe. He finished third in the Players Championship, tied for sixth in the Masters and tied for third at Hilton Head in his last three events.
 
That Fab Five was better than anything the Yanks could muster during those glory years. But what has happened in the meantime?
 
Well, 43 doesn't seem particularly old, not if you're playing on the U.S. tour. Hoch, for example, is probably better than any of them with the possible exception of Langer. Hal Sutton, himself 43, is playing his best golf ever. Tom Lehman is 42 and he remains a dangerous man. So does Mark Calcavecchia at 41. Scott Simpson at 45 made some serious noises last week before he finally acted his age.
 
But it's a shame, really. Ballesteros had been great for so many years, and it's such a shock to see him undergoing so much humiliation. He and Lyle can't make a cut. Faldo was such an artist in winning the six majors and holding down the top spot in the world rankings. Watching him fiddle-faddle now is torturous. Whatever happened to him? And Woosie should be in his glory years. Instead, nowadays it's hit-or-miss. And it's 'miss' much more often than 'hit.'
 
All these gentleman have done quite well financially, so that shouldn't be a problem. But unfortunately, we will have to live on memories. And memories are all they can offer.
 

More on Nick Faldo
 
More on Ian Woosnam
 
More on Bernhard Langer