Will a European Finally Win a U.S. Open?

By: Tony Dear

The article discussing European players' hopes of winning the U.S. Open has been a familiar one in the world's golf magazines for a decade or more: "Can a European Win the U.S. Open?," "Why Can't a European Win the U.S. Open?," etc. etc.

It's always a compelling read as no one from across the pond has won the championship since Tony Jacklin 39 years ago…39! And, though numerous theories are offered in an attempt to explain this oddity, no one can really say with any confidence why on Earth Europe's best players keep coming up short at the year's second major championship.

Since Jacklin prevailed in 1970 at the Robert Trent Jones-designed Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., Europe has produced more than its share of world-class golfers capable of winning: Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington. But apart from a couple of playoff appearances (Faldo 1988, Montgomerie 1994), and other close calls (Woosnam 1989, Faldo 1990, Montgomerie 1992 and 2006, Westwood 2007), the Euros have contended far less this week than they have at either the Masters or Open Championship (at the PGA Championship, Harrington broke a similarly confusing losing streak last year.)

Okay, Ballesteros, for all his genius, was never going to win. You can only make so many sensational birdies from the rough, forest, car park, pot bunker, lake, etc. There were just too many potential double-bogey holes for the Spaniard, who finished in the top 10 just three times in 18 appearances and never placed higher than third (1985).

Lyle, also a little too erratic for the typical U.S. Open set-up, played in the event 10 times, missed four cuts and had a best finish of tied-16th. Woosnam came close at Oak Hill in 1988 when Curtis Strange won his second consecutive Open, but managed only one other top 10 (T6 in 1994), while Olazabal has three top-10s but none since 1991.

This quartet showed frequent flashes of brilliance, but were guilty all too often of inaccuracy and inconsistency with the driver, a dreaded combination that never works at the U.S. Open where the dogged, patient pursuit of par via the fairway usually wins the day.

So what of Faldo, Langer and Montgomerie? You'd expect all three to have reveled in the conditions and, in all fairness, two of them did to a degree. The Englishman lost to Strange at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in '88 after an 18-hole playoff and missed a long putt on Medinah's 18th green in 1990 to be part of another. He tied for fourth at Pebble Beach in 1992 and was seventh at the same venue eight years later. With the help of a Saturday 66, he finished tied fifth in 2002, the last time the championship was played at Bethpage Black.

That's not a bad record certainly, but for someone so meticulous, so determined, so predictable, it is surprising it doesn't include at least one "W" in America's national championship.

Montgomerie, at one point the straightest driver in the game who could have found 12 or 13 fairways a round with a 64-inch bamboo shaft, had his share of heartbreak as well, losing to Tom Kite at Pebble Beach in 1992 after Jack Nicklaus had congratulated him prematurely on winning his first major; finishing joint second with Loren Roberts after the pair were beaten in a playoff by Ernie Els at Oakmont in 1994; losing to Els by a single stroke again, at Congressional in 1997; and hitting the worst 7-iron of his life on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006 when finding the middle of the green and two-putting would have been enough to win.

Again, the empty win column is a little puzzling.

Most baffling of all, however - given the fact he made Faldo look positively casual at times and was the equal of Montgomerie in such areas as putting, chipping and hitting the fairway - is Langer's catalogue of failed attempts. The German, who famously asked Montgomerie, his foursomes partner at the 1991 Ryder Cup, if he was calculating yardages from the front or back of a sprinkler head, appeared to possess the ideal U.S. Open temperament: gritty, resolute and utterly unflappable. Yet the winner of 79 professional tournaments around the world since 1976, has been spectacularly unsuccessful. In 20 starts he managed just two top 10s (1986, '87), missed nine cuts, and was disqualified once, in 1996, when he signed for the wrong score. After that disappointment, the two-time Masters champion now making hay on the Champions Tour at age 52 said he hadn't liked the set-up at Oakland Hills, and added it wasn't a course for modern golf "with its lightning-fast greens" - a strange comment from someone who had won on Augusta National's even lightninger-fast greens.

The most frequently cited theory for these and other Europeans' singular lack of success at the U.S. Open has been an unfamiliarity with the venues and the way they're prepared. Narrow fairways, thick rough and concrete greens were all too much for the Euros who preferred courses where aggression, touch and flair were encouraged and rewarded, or so the argument went. And it probably held some water in the 1980s and most of the 1990s when what few European golfers that did come over to the U.S. made infrequent trips and then only for one or two tournaments at a time.

Since the turn of the century, however, 20 or so players from Europe have been in the field at the U.S. Open every year, most of them either based permanently in America or here for several weeks at a time. The set-up of the host course is no longer an excuse; Europe's best know what to expect.

Since 2000, only Lee Westwood among the younger Eurostars has been a key figure in the Sunday afternoon telecast, missing out on last year's playoff by a shot. Miguel Angel Jiminez did finish tied for second at Pebble Beach in the first U.S. Open of the century, but he was 15 shots behind Tiger Woods after Tiger's dust settled. In 2002, Sergio Garcia played in the final round with Woods but failed to mount much of a challenge on Sunday, ultimately making more headlines for continuously re-gripping his club, battling the crowds and complaining that he had played in weather so bad during the second round it would have provoked a suspension had Woods been out playing, than he did for his golf. Harrington also was a factor at Bethpage before a final-round 75 dropped him into a tie for eighth. Garcia then tied for third at Pinehurst in 2005, but was a long way behind the Michael Campbell- Woods duel and Sweden's Niclas Fasth tied third, two shots behind Angel Cabrera at Oakmont two years ago.

Harrington and Garcia would seem Europe's most likely contenders given their near-misses in the event, but neither arrives at Bethpage this week in any sort of form. Harrington has missed five cuts from 12 events on this year's PGA Tour and is yet to finish in the top 10. In Europe, he has only one top-10 finish and missed the cut at the Irish Open four weeks ago. Garcia is having a similarly rough time having recently split with girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman (Greg Norman's daughter) and failing to register a top 10 anywhere in the world since January.

Major championships aren't really the place to be searching for lost confidence, but elite players have the ability to find inspiration from somewhere, so don't count either out entirely.

Surely more likely to contend, however, are England's Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. Casey is enjoying his long-anticipated rise to prominence, Luke Donald has the sound all-round game and poise of a U.S. Open champion, while Poulter has had four top 10s in America this year, including a second at the Players Championship in May. Ireland's Rory McIlroy appears to have the talent and skill to win the game's biggest prizes, and Ross Fisher, another Englishman, is fast joining the game's top tier.

In all, 27 Europeans will try once again to bring the 114-year-old trophy back across the Atlantic (or to their U.S. residence). A good many of them have the game to win. But if history, ancient or recent, is anything to go by, they probably won't.

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 increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf 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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.