AUGUSTA, Ga. – A green jacket defined the golden era of European golf.
For the better part of two decades, Europeans seemed to have part-ownership of Augusta National by winning the Masters six times in a seven-year stretch, and 11 times in the 1980s and 1990s. Seve Ballesteros was the first European in a green jacket. Nick Faldo won three times. Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Olazabal each won twice.
Perhaps it was only fitting that when the world ranking made its debut in 1986 at the Masters, the top three were Europeans.
“It would be nice to recreate some of that magic,” Justin Rose said Monday under the large oak tree next to the Augusta National clubhouse. “And I think this is as good a time as any.”
On paper, European golf has never been stronger.
They have won two of the last three majors – Martin Kaymer in a playoff at the PGA Championship, Graeme McDowell at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open. Padraig Harrington was the last player to win successive majors, at the end of 2008.
And then there’s the world ranking.
Europe would have had the top five spots except for Phil Mickelson winning the Houston Open to go to No. 3. As it is, Kaymer and Westwood are Nos. 1 and 2, with Luke Donald, McDowell and Paul Casey at Nos. 4-5-6. Tiger Woods is at No. 7.
About the only thing missing from this new era of European dominance is a green jacket.
“It’s been too long,” said Ian Poulter, among those determined to change this trend. “There’s more guys with more chances.”
Olazabal was the last European to win the Masters, holding off Greg Norman in the final round in 1999. A year later, no Europeans were among the top 10 at the Masters, and none came particularly close to winning except for Westwood last year when he was runner-up by three shots to Mickelson.
Europe now seems more poised than ever.
In the middle of that great European run from two decades ago, they had four of the top 10 in the world. Now there are six Europeans in the top 10, and nine of the top 20.
“If you look at the guys who compete week in and week out, we’ve got more now than what we had 15 years ago,” Poulter said. “There’s definitely more of a chance now. But you’ve got a lot of good players to go up again. Tiger and Phil have won quite a few of these jackets over the last few years.”
Woods and Mickelson have combined to win six of the last 10 times at the Masters, although it’s Mickelson who comes into the first major as the biggest favorite. Not only is he the defending champion, Mickelson made 18 birdies on the weekend to win in Houston.
For a tournament that had lacked a clear favorite, it has one now.
“It seems that everyone has pretty much got Mickelson in the green jacket Sunday evening and there’s not much use in turning up at this point,” McDowell said with a grin. “He’s a great player around Augusta, and if you finish ahead of him, you’ve got a decent chance.”
All McDowell wants is a shot on the back nine Sunday.
That would be a good starting point for Europe to win the only major that has eluded him over the last 12 years.
Westwood was just starting to get good as a junior when Faldo won the Masters in back-to-back years. Then came Woosnam in 1991, winning with a par on the 18th hole in a year in which Olazabal and Tom Watson were tied for the lead going to the last hole.
Francesco Molinari remembers Olazabal coming back from a career-threatening injury to win in 1999.
“For every European, it was inspiring,” Molinari said. “It’s been awhile, but I think we’re ready for another run.”
Poulter was folding shirts and selling candy bars in a golf shop in England toward the end of the European run. He remembers Woosnam winning, and Langer and Olazabal in back-to-back years. And no one could forget Faldo winning his last green jacket in 1996 when he rallied from a six-shot deficit against Greg Norman.
“They were just so strong,” Poulter said. “They were on the board every year. They were the best in the game around that era. I guess it’s been a while since you’ve had those guys back in that position. But if you look at Europe in the world ranking now, we’ve filled that back with guys who are definitely going to have a chance.”
Poulter and Westwood shared the 36-hole lead a year ago. Westwood fought to the end, while Poulter faltered.
It would be surprising if Europe didn’t show itself when the Masters begins on Thursday. Donald, Casey and Rose each have flirted with contention over the years, and Harrington appeared to take a step forward last week with his play in Houston.
The best proof is not the names, but the numbers.
Beyond the ranking, Europeans keep showing up at the top of World Golf Championships – Donald, Molinari and Poulter have won three of the last five. And then there was that little exhibition at Celtic Manor last October, with Europe winning the Ryder Cup again.
Now comes the first major of the year. What once were hopes for Europe now are expectations.
“There’s no shortage of great players, especially in Britain and Ireland,” said McDowell, who played a full practice round Monday with Poulter and Rose. This current crop of European players has been compared with Woosie, Ollie, Ballesteros, Lyle, Faldo and Langer. I think if you compared them with this crop, yeah, you’ve got to start suggesting that it’s time to start winning the Masters.
“There’s no doubt we’ve got the talent. We’ve got the players,” he said. “But it’s tough to win.”