Continental Shift


2007- WGC-AccentureMARANA, Ariz. – Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin:

Straightaway congrats, seems you’ll make the trip across the pond to Wales in September with all 14 clubs in the bag if Tiger Woods keeps to the script on Friday in Florida and maps out his return strategy to the PGA Tour, among other talking points the world is anxiously awaiting.

The bad news is that glancing at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship it seems you’ll need to send Woods out in every match at Celtic Manor for America to retain the cup.

We travelled cross country, braved jumping cholla and coyotes and first-round upsets to watch a World Golf Championship and the European Four-Ball has broken out.

On Thursday an Englishman outlasted a Northern Irishman in an overtime special, a Spaniard clipped a Dane and the game’s most capricious format has voted nearly everyone off the island that doesn’t have a pocket full of Euros.

Now much of what is transpiring in the dusty hills north of Tucson is the byproduct of a greatly-depleted U.S. lineup that is missing Woods and world No. 3 Phil Mickelson, to say nothing of world No. 2 Steve Stricker’s first-round stunner at the hands of a spirited Englishman named Ross McGowan.

Yet missing heavy weights and misfiring heavies explain only a portion of the Continental wave that has overtaken Dove Mountain.

Of the 22 European players who started the week, 11 advanced to Day 2 and five will be around for the Sweet 16. By comparison, 21 Americans made the trip up Dove Mountain, eight made it through the first round and four remain.

And it’s not just how many Europeans remain, but how young they are: Paul Casey, Oliver Wilson, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter are all around for the third round and all are closer to the beginnings of their careers than they are to their primes.

Not included in that group are 20-year-old Rory McIlroy (who lost to Wilson in 20 holes) and 25-year-old Martin Kaymer, who ran into match play magician Tim Clark on Thursday.

On paper, where six of the top 10 players in the World Ranking are European, there has been a Continental tilt for some time. But it is on the parched turf of Dove Mountain that the Europeans seem to be making a statement.

“You have a situation where Europe could have more than 12 players in the top 50 (in the World Ranking) and have to leave some players off the team,” said Rocky Hambric, president of Hambric Sports whose European clients include Wilson and Francesco Molinari.

“That guy is the perfect example,” said Hambric gesturing toward McGowan. “He is a heck of a player, a heck of a match play player and could get left off the team.”

In many ways the European curiosity is a reversal of clichés. There was a time when the Europeans enjoyed an embarrassment of short riches, with a rooster that was top heavy but not deep, while the Americans were the ’27 Yankees of Ryder Cup play.

It seems now, however, it is the European bench that runs deep and the Americans who depend on the stars to lead the way.

The format seems to be the primary reason behind the European match play success. In Europe nearly all amateur events are match play and juniors are taught the nuances of the game from an early age.

But that only explains a portion of the Continental shift.

“We’re brought up on it, but at this stage, I think there's pretty much nobody in the field that's not got experience in match play,” Wilson said. “There's a lot of young talent (in Europe) and I think that's what it comes down to in the end.”

In many ways the European renaissance is being led by the English, with nine players in the Match Play field, six that advanced to Round 2 and four that will be around for Friday’s action.

“It’s a great era for guys to be coming through playing great golf,” Ian Poulter said. “When (Lee Westwood) was the only guy, eight, nine years ago that was in the top 100 in the world. Now, I’m not sure of the stats, but I think there’s probably at least 15 guys. So it’s great.”

Great, that is for European captain Colin Montgomerie. Pavin, however, well . . . at least you’ll have Woods.