Europes Weakest Link


European golfers seldom win the U.S. Open, but that has never stopped them from trying. Since that day in 1913 when a 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet took the mighty Harry Vardon, winner of a record six British Opens, and another Englishman Ted Ray in a playoff for the American title and won, the American championship has been one major that has proved as darned elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel in Baroness Orczys novel.
The U.S. Open record books make a dismal reading for the British. Ted Ray, stunned by Ouimet in 1913, did take the title seven years later at the Inverness Club in Toledo but since then only Tony Jacklin has been successful. He led from the start to win by seven at Hazeltine in 1970 when he also happened to be the reigning British champion. It did not herald, however, a dramatic revival in European fortunes. Jacklins success remains the only European win in 82 years! Is it any wonder that you might be considered somewhat eccentric if you suggested there could be a British winner at Bethpage Park this year of the title all American professionals dream of winning?
Having said that, it is a fact that British players have come close in the past few seasons. Only a brilliant up-and-down from a bunker at the final hole on the final day prevented Nick Faldo from beating Curtis Strange at The Country Club, Brookline in 1988. Strange easily won the playoff. The following year Ian Woosnam had a go at bringing the trophy back across the Atlantic but failed by a shot at Rochester. Strange was the winner again.
More recently Colin Montgomerie came in third at Pebble Beach in 1992, pipped only by the fast finishing Tom Kite and often under-rated Jeff Sluman, then lost a playoff to Ernie Els at Oakmont six year later. In 1997 Monty battled all the way again at Congressional in Washington with Tom Lehman and Els who played a career best second shot to the 71st green which proved a winner again.
Closest any Continental European has come to winning recently was Miguel Angel Jimenez who was joint runner up to Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000. Going good but he and big Ernie Els were 15 back at the close.
Still if the record of British and European players makes dismal reading we can at least claim that the title is not beyond the reach of members of the European Tour. Els is not a member of the European Tour and has won twice. The defending champion this year is Retief Goosen who not only plays the European Tour full-time but was last years top Euro earner so it is not all that bad.
Yet why is it that Europeans seem to do so well at Augusta and so poorly at the U.S. Open? Perhaps the key to that lies in the way the United States Golf Association sets up their Championship tests. Those thick collars of rough around the greens are not what European players are used to. They perform better at Augusta because there are not collars. You have to be more imaginative around the greens, be adept at the traditional little Scottish chip-and-run. Significantly, Europeans have won the Masters 11 times since 1980.
Then there is the climate. It can be hot and steamy at a U.S. Open and the Europeans do not like playing golf in conditions in which their shirts stick to their backs and you perspire buckets simply walking to the tee. In Europe the weather is altogether more inclement. Didnt the Scots invent golf in order to enjoy a dram of the product the country is most famous for without feeling guilty? After suffering the wind and rain at St. Andrews, or Prestwick or Musselburgh, they had a ready made excuse for medical reasons to down a whisky or two or three
Looking for excuses, however, for European failure at the U.S. Open is pointless. The fact is that the top European Tour players, whether they are from Europe, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, or Asia, are golfing globetrotters. No golfing conditions, no course set-up should ever faze them. The worldwide European Tour starts each year in Asia moves on to South Africa and Australia, heads back to Asia and the Middle East before it finally comes home. The Tour does not even hit Britain until Week 18!
My point is that Europeans, most of who do manage to play a number of events in America, early in the season anyway, really are capable of playing any course. Maybe it is only matter of time before a European manages to do what Goosen did last year at Southern Hills.
A hundred years ago at Garden City, N.Y., when the entry incidentally was a modest and manageable 90, it was Scot Laurie Auchterlonie from St Andrews who walked off with the first prize, preventing in the process fellow Scot Willie Anderson from winning five years in a row.
Those were the days before Ouimet when the men from across the pond dominated the event. It is different now but you can be sure the Europeans in the field this year will come as determined as ever to take the title. They will take no notice of the historical facts and figures. After all, to any European winning the American national championship comes second only to being a member of a winning Ryder Cup side on U.S. soil. There is one problem, one reason, however, why the Europeans might have to wait another year for a much-needed U.S. Open win. He is a bit older that Francis Ouimet. His name is Tiger Woods.