NEWPORT, Wales – The Ryder Cup used to be the crowning achievement for European golf.
Now it’s gravy.
From the balcony of the clubhouse at Celtic Manor, the Europeans sprayed champagne onto a delirious crowd Monday afternoon, stopping every now and then to chug some of the bubbly in a raucous celebration.
All they cared about was winning the gold trophy that apparently had only been on loan to the Americans. Considering how the year has gone – and what the future holds – they might as well have been celebrating a banner year.
Europeans won three consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour, the first time that has happened. They had more major champions than any other continent, with Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and Martin Kaymer of Germany taking the PGA Championship in a playoff.
Coincidence? Maybe. The world ranking, however, suggests otherwise.
Europe has five players in the top 10 – and 11 players in the top 25 – which is more than the Americans. Lee Westwood moved up to No. 2 in the world, and he won’t have to do much at the Dunhill Championship this week or the Portugal Masters to replace Tiger Woods when they meet in Shanghai next month.
For years, there was a perception that the Americans had the best players and Europe had the best team. Now, it seems as though everything is going Europe’s way.
This could be the next golden era for European golf.
“I think it’s been a golden era for a couple of years now,” Westwood said.
Westwood quickly pointed out what made this European team look stronger than ever: It wasn’t so much who was on the team at Celtic Manor, rather who was left off.
It was the first time Europe had a top 10 player who couldn’t make the team, either on points or through a pick. That would be Paul Casey of England, who is No. 7 in the world and spent the Ryder Cup riding his bike through western Canada.
Six years ago, Europe didn’t have a player ranked that high on its team.
Also left off the team were Justin Rose, who won two times on the PGA Tour in the span of a month, first at the Memorial, then at the AT&T National; Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson, two Swedes who played on the previous two teams and are coping with a slump; and Sergio Garcia, who had played in five Ryder Cups before turning 30. He was a vice captain at Celtic Manor.
Five of the players in this Ryder Cup were under 30. One of them is Kaymer, who already has a major. Another is Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who tied for third in two majors and shot 62 to win on one of the PGA Tour’s toughest tracks at Quail Hollow.
“I think the last four or five years have been a good time for European golf,” Westwood.
Still to be determined is whether this crop can dominate golf the way its “Fab Five” – Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam – did in the 1980s and 90s.
Langer and Lyle won majors in 1985, the same year Europe ended 28 years of U.S. dominance in these matches. For most of the last decade, the U.S. team showed up at the Ryder Cup boasting the most major champions, and Europe proved its worth in the Ryder Cup.
Now it gets the trophy and the majors.
“I think it was clear that this Ryder Cup team was one of the hardest teams to get on,” Luke Donald said. “We’ve won nine of the last 13. We’re starting to get close to that word ‘dominance.”’
The next step is to win more majors.
Westwood could become only the third player to reach No. 1 without having won a major. He was runner-up in two majors this year, the Masters and the British Open, and he finished one shot out of a playoff in each of the previous two years. Even though he had not played in nearly two months because of a calf injury, Westwood looked as though he had never been away.
“If you look back 10 years ago, I was the only English player in the top 100,” he said.
Now there are six among the top 30, although none has won a major. The last Englishman to win a major was Nick Faldo in 1996.
“We need to start winning majors,” Westwood said, speaking more of his country than all of Europe.
As more Europeans take up membership in the PGA Tour, Westwood is content to stay home. He has tried the U.S. tour, winning this year at the St. Jude Classic. He just doesn’t see the need to travel across the Atlantic to make sure he plays his minimum tournament. He recalls showing up at some tournaments wondering what he was doing there.
“I’m not going to be taking up my tour card,” he said before leaving Celtic Manor. “I think I got it right this year.”
So did Europe. Seven of its players won in America. Two won majors.
It took 12 to win a Ryder Cup.