Featured Golf News
Europe's Chances at the Masters
[Editor's Note: Tony Dear looks back at the European glory days of the 1980s and 1990s, and wonders if we might be on the verge of something similar in this year's Masters Tournament.]
Golf writers and TV analysts have a habit of trying to explain the unexplainable. How is it that "Player A" was atop the putting stats on the PGA Tour just a couple of years ago, but is now down in 19th? Aha, the off-season surgery on his left elbow is causing him to come across the ball at impact ever so slightly and drag his putts left an eighth of an inch. What other reason could there possibly be for the extra .46 putts "Player A" has been taking every round?
A lot of the time, the words fill empty space/air and make the writer/analyst appear like he holds the keys to the kingdom and possesses the knowledge of good and evil when really all that happened was that Player A slept awkwardly on his arm one night, lost the feeling in it for a few hours the next day and had one bad putting round that skewed his stats.
Between 1980 and 1999, six European golfers won 11 of the 20 Masters Tournaments played, but not a single U.S. Open. The blame, numerous commentators insisted, had to lie somewhere deep in the shin-high rough that Europeans obviously couldn't handle and the absence of it at Augusta National where they were able to express their creativity from around the greens.
But that "logic" didn't really explain how these same U.S. Open-hating Euros managed nine top-five finishes and 15 top-10s. Yes, their success rate at the U.S. Open didn't come close to matching their record at Augusta, but it's not as if they never contended at the year's second major.
To be fair, the gap between the two sets of figures probably is more than just coincidence. But could it be the answer is no more complicated than Seve Ballesteros's victories in 1980 and 1983 spurring his contemporaries on, and giving them the belief that they too could win a green jacket? After all, they beat Seve in Europe, occasionally.
Which brings us to Europe's current crop of stars. Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were half a dozen players with a legitimate chance of winning the Masters - Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal. This year's field includes 25 golfers from the Continent, 18 or 19 of which probably aren't there just for the thrill of it. Past champions Lyle, Woosnam and Olazabal surely don't harbor genuine aspirations of adding a second, or in Olazabal's case a third, jacket to their wardrobe, and there are a few that would probably start hyperventilating if they got within three shots of the first page of the leaderboard. But among the strong Euro contingent there are a dozen-plus golfers who will be studying the course intently and devising a shrewd game plan in the hope of becoming the first man from the far side of the Atlantic to win at Augusta since Olazabal 12 years ago.
Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell take up four of the top-five positions in the latest world rankings. Kaymer (2010 PGA Championship) and McDowell (2010 U.S. Open) are already major champions, and you don't have to stretch your imagination too far to see Westwood and Donald winning a Grand Slam event. The same is true of powerful Paul Casey (sixth) and sweet-swinging Rory McIlroy (ninth).
And Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Ross Fisher, Henrik Stenson, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and the Molinari brothers could all attain major champion status at some point in their career. You have to think Alvaro Quiros's length will be a mighty potent weapon over the course's 7,435 yards, and newly-crowned (sworded, jacketed?) Bay Hill champion Martin Laird appears to have the temperament necessary to overcome first-time jitters. Robert Karlsson has two top-five and four top-10 finishes in 23 major championship starts going back to 1989, and made the cut at all four last year. And, though his recent travails off the course and lack of competition on it suggest he may not be ready for a sustained challenge, who's to say Sergio Garcia can't go where he has promised to go so often in the past? The 31-year-old Spaniard has finished in the top five at major championships nine times, and has two top-10s at the Masters, although it has been six very long years since the last.
Then there's Padraig Harrington who we know has the nerve and determination required to win a major, having done so three times already. But does he have any momentum heading to Georgia? 'The Irishman closed with a 2-under 70 to finish tied for eighth at 11-under 277 in Houston over the weekend, but judging from his indifferent results before last week - a high finish of T10 in eight events worldwide - it's taking a while for him to get fully comfortable with the 12-strong set of modifications he began working on at the end of last season.
Augusta National is the tinkerer's worst nightmare, of course, a layout you can't possibly hope to conquer with so many swing thoughts competing for space in your brain. As well as length off the tee, it calls for pinpoint accuracy and supreme judgment of distance with the irons, requirements that the player ranked 137th in Greens in Regulation (GIR) will probably have trouble meeting.
Still, in Harrington's and his fellow Europeans' favor is the fact that the man once regarded as virtually unbeatable around Augusta is having some trouble of his own getting his game where he wants it to be. Like Harrington, four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods is currently working on some major swing changes, changes that as yet have borne precious little fruit. Yes, there's been the odd shot here, a birdie there, and a couple of competitive rounds that suggested the 14-time major champion has been making significant progress. But the sum total of his efforts thus far in 2011 is one top-10 finish from five tournaments and an actual stroke average from four stroke-play events of 71.13 - a substantial 2.23 strokes a round higher than his 2008 average and a scary 2.96 shots worse than what he averaged during 2000, his Annus Mirabilis (or Annus "You've-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me-With-This").
But if the ancient principle of horses performing their best on certain courses still holds water, then Woods is obviously still a contender. Last year, having gone AWOL for the first four months of the season, he showed up at Augusta National and somehow strung together rounds of 68, 70, 70 and 69 to tie for fourth. Woods knows what works there, and that is a very advantageous card to hold at Augusta National.
The defending champion has a pretty firm grasp of it too. In the first 11 Masters of the 21st Century, Phil Mickelson finished in the top 10 an incredible 10 times. It took him 12 visits to eventually work out the formula for winning, but he has now won three times since 2004. Despite early-season form that was a little patchy, Mickelson came through over the weekend with rounds of 63 and 65 to win the Shell Houston Open going away. If asked which of the two Americans they might pick for this year's tournament, most observers will rightfully go for the left-hander.
The Europeans know better than to discount Woods and Mickelson's chances. And they're well aware of the threat posed by several younger Americans - Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Anthony Kim. And don't forget star players from elsewhere - Ernie Els, K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang, Charl Schwartzel and Geoff Ogilvy.
But with an armada of heavy hitters lining up to taste Masters' glory this year, a European victory is a very real possibility. And who knows how many European victories might follow in its wake?
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.