ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Rule Britannia.
A British golfer hasn’t won his own Open in more than a decade, and it’s been even longer since an Englishman hoisted the claret jug. That could change at St. Andrews this week, given the way golfers from the United Kingdom – all of Europe, really – have dominated the winner’s lists on both sides of the Atlantic lately.
“I expect one of us to be in contention on Sunday, just pure numbers,” said Justin Rose, who’s leading the charge after winning twice on the PGA Tour in a five-week span. “Numerically, you look at the world rankings, you look at the opportunity for us. It’s probably better than it’s been, dare I say, ever. Just using that basis, I think one of us will be in contention Sunday afternoon.”
Stuck in the shadows of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for so many years, the Europeans pose their biggest threat since the days of Seve, Faldo and Ollie. After eight years without a major champion, Europeans have now won four of the last 12, including Graeme McDowell’s surprise win at the U.S. Open last month. McDowell’s big victory was part of a stretch that saw Europeans win four PGA events in five weeks – and Rose had a shot at winning the fifth as the 54-hole leader.
Half the players in the current top 20 hail from Europe, with all but three of the 10 from Britain or Northern Ireland. Only six of the top 20 are Americans. Compare that to five years ago, the last time the British Open was held at St. Andrews. Back then, the Americans had nine players in the top 20, while all of Europe managed just five, two from Britain or Northern Ireland.
“You look at the last five years of the majors, and the English and the British players have started to get more and more experience. For me that was what spurred me on,” said Nick Faldo, whose win at the 1992 British Open was the last by an Englishman. “I think everybody is learning and everybody is really keen. I think something is going to happen this week.”
While part of Europe’s rise is simply cyclical, there is more to it.
When Padraig Harrington won the 2007 British Open, he was Europe’s first major champion since Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999. Harrington kept the claret jug for a second straight year in 2008, and added the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship.
Suddenly, all those players who wondered if they’d ever catch up to the Americans, Australians and the South Africans realized one of their own already had. Same with McDowell’s win at Pebble Beach, the first at America’s national championship by a European in 40 years.
“To see him win that, it gave me a lot of confidence just to know winning a major wasn’t as far away as I thought it was,” said Rory McIlroy, who has already proven he’s got the game to win – and win often – with his dominant display at Quail Hollow in May. “I had sort of viewed winning majors as this higher level, and it made me realize that it wasn’t. You just need to play well in the right week, and have a few things go your way.”
McIlroy is only 21, the kind of precocious talent that could carry the continent for a generation. The Northern Irishman turned pro in 2007, earned his European card without going to Q-school and broke into the top 10 in the world before his 21st birthday.
“The fields seem to be a lot more wide open nowadays and guys are believing that they can do it,” McDowell said. “To be part of that inspiration factor, hopefully, for European golfers and for a guy maybe to win this week or to win at the PGA, I’m comfortable with that.”
Lee Westwood’s bum calf probably will keep him from doing much at St. Andrews, but he’s ranked No. 3 in the world and Europe’s top player last season. When he was honored at the British golf writers’ dinner Tuesday night, Westwood looked over at PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and said, “Congratulations to Steve Stricker. Always nice to see an American win on your tour.”
Ouch. Hard to argue, though. Stricker’s victory Sunday at the Deere Classic was only the second by an American since the beginning of June.
“Getting over to the States and playing a lot more with obviously the best players in the world … you become more comfortable with them,” McDowell said. “And, obviously, you feel like you can start to compete, rather than seeing them less often and being over-awed.
“I’m just proud to be part of a strong British and Irish contingent, and part of a strong European contingent right now,” he added. “It would be great to see another one of the boys win this week.”