PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Twenty-five events have come and gone during the 2013-14 season on the PGA Tour.
Many of the names in the winner’s circle have ranged from “surprising” to “I could not successfully pick him out of a lineup,” but they have all shared one common bond: they’re not from Europe.
While Australia has attempted to take over Tim Finchem’s circuit this year, one victory at a time, the contingent from across the Pond is still 0-fer. There have certainly been some close calls – notably, Rory McIlroy’s successful surrender at PGA National and Matt Kuchar’s bunker hole-out to beat Luke Donald last month at Harbour Town.
But during a Ryder Cup year, when the biggest and best from Europe are expected to shine as the season progresses, their collective trophy haul remains as bare as the section of Ian Poulter’s mantle set aside for majors.
That could all change Sunday at The Players Championship.
While TPC Sawgrass has already dispatched several top Americans, freeing up Phil Mickelson’s weekend plans and humbling former major champs in Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, the European armada has shown up in a big way through three rounds.
There are a total of four European flags flying in the top 10 heading into the final round, a tally that would have been five if not for Justin Rose’s two-shot penalty for microscopically moving his ball behind the 18th green. The group is led by Martin Kaymer, a former world No. 1 who is in search of his first win on U.S. soil since the 2010 PGA Championship.
Kaymer equaled the course record with a 63 during the opening round, and after an even-par 72 on Saturday, shares the lead with Jordan Spieth. The German explained that sometimes the deck can be stacked against Europeans trying to win on American soil.
“When you’re trying to win a big tournament, usually the big tournaments, you play them in America, so I’m always a foreigner,” Kaymer said. “It’s a good challenge.”
While Kaymer will tee off Sunday in the best position among the Euros, the sentimental choice is likely Sergio Garcia. While only three Europeans have won this event – and none since Stenson in 2009 – Garcia is among that select group after his playoff win in 2008.
The Spaniard’s relationship with the Stadium Course remains a tumultuous one following last year’s near-miss, but it’s a venue where, by and large, he has had success. After missing the cut at the Masters in his previous start, Garcia is happy to be back on a course that has largely been kind to him – and his play this week reflects it.
“They say that there’s courses for horses,” he said. “I see too many shots at Augusta. Here, I see less shots. I see, in my head, I have everything a bit more clear of what I want to do.”
Garcia has won just once in the U.S. since his triumph at TPC Sawgrass, having also won the 2012 Wyndham Championship. After a third-round 69 that left him three shots behind Kaymer and co-leader Jordan Spieth, he noted some surprise that a European has yet to win in the States this season.
“It’s such a thin line between winning and finishing second or third,” Garcia said. “I’ve been close a couple times, Justin (Rose) has been close, Luke (Donald) has been very close…It’s not like we haven’t had chances.”
Still on the outer edge of contention sit a pair of Ryder Cup veterans in Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari, five shots back among a tie for eighth. Westwood has had close calls at TPC Sawgrass before, and has cracked the top 10 in two of his last three appearances in Ponte Vedra.
Molinari has had more limited success in this event, following a ninth-place finish in his debut in 2010 with three straight missed cuts. He fired a 5-under 67 in the third round, though, a score that equaled the low round of the day and gave the 31-year-old reason for optimism.
“I think there’s still, if you play well, there are a few chances out there,” Molinari said. “I’m happy with where I am at the moment.”
Recent success against the U.S. has been a point of pride for Europeans, who currently possess the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and U.S. Open trophies. The continent as a whole could go winless for the balance of the season and still head to Gleneagles as favorites when the Ryder Cup is again up for grabs in September.
With many top Americans either on the couch or well down in the standings, the fact remains: Sunday presents a high-profile opportunity to stake the European flag atop one of the biggest events the U.S. has to offer.