Y.E. Yang finished third last week at the Phoenix Open.
Alan Diaz/AP
By Alan Shipnuck
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

As the 140th Open Championship came to a close and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland was crowned champion golfer of the world, a plaintive wail rang out across Royal St.;George's: What's wrong with European golf?

The long overdue first major championship victory for Clarke, 42, merely highlighted the ongoing underachievement of his majorless contemporaries. Crowd favorite Miguel Angel Jiménez, 47, was in position to challenge for the claret jug, but he closed with an eight-over 78 and tumbled to 25th place. First-round leader Thomas Bjorn, 40, couldn't break par the rest of the way and endured a slow, agonizing fade to fourth place. Clarke's wingman, Lee Westwood, 38, missed the cut, while Colin Montgomerie, 48, failed to even land a spot in the field and made headlines only with his threat to quit the sport in favor of full-time TV commentating. Yes, Clarke's victory was the fourth by a Euro in the last six majors, but that's clearly a statistical anomaly given that Americans have won 69.8% of the majors since World War;II. And yes, Clarke's victory is a wonderful valedictory to a star-crossed career, but it is the young lads who must carry the banner for European golf, and they had a rough go of it last week. World No.;1 Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter all missed the cut, while Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer stumbled badly on the weekend. Going forward they will have to tangle with a suddenly rejuvenated U.S. side. Five of the top seven finishers at the Open were Yanks, including the three most talented innocents abroad: Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and Rickie Fowler. Phil Mickelson, 41, put a huge charge into this Open with a Sunday surge during which he played the first seven holes in five under par to briefly tie for the lead. He ultimately fell short, but Mickelson has found a new confidence and playing style on the linksland that should make him a contender at future British Opens.

Befitting the rugged individualism of their homeland, the U.S. players were not necessarily reveling in their collective surge. Phil used the word fun seven times following his round on Friday; the only time his mood soured was when he was asked about the "American drought" in the majors. Phil, is that something you think about, and do you feel extra motivation to get the U.S. a win?

"No and no."

Still, it was impossible not to notice all the red, white and blue on the leader board, which would explain the perma-grin worn by Davis Love III, the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, who, it should be noted, tied for ninth, a stroke ahead of countrymen Steve Stricker and Lucas Glover. While actually winning the British Open is nice, you can make the case that the Americans traded short-term glory for long-term gain, with a host of players learning valuable lessons that will stand them in good stead for the future.

Mickelson's abysmal record at the Open -- contending only once in two decades -- has always been one of golf's great mysteries, given that these wild and woolly, rolling courses should be ideal showcases for his touch and creative shotmaking. Part of the problem was Mickelson's stubborn attempts to impose his game on the Open, playing by air and not by land. He brought a more open-minded approach to St. George's. "I'm entering this year kind of like a fresh start," Mickelson said on the eve of the championship. "I'm going to try to learn and enjoy the challenge of playing links golf. I'm trying to pretend like it's my first time here. I feel excited and kind of reinvigorated to come over here and try to learn this style of golf and play it effectively."

Instead of his usual towering ball flight, he often employed a low, stinging driver that got on the ground quickly and ran for days. Without any ballooning foul balls, Mickelson avoided making a double bogey at a tournament where he has often been undone by big numbers. A missed two-footer on the 11th hole on Sunday blunted Mickelson's comeback, but he chose to accentuate only the positives after his seventh runner-up finish in a major. "Oh, man, that was some of the most fun" -- there's that word again -- "I've had competitively," he said. Part of Mickelson's buoyancy was having his family join him at an Open for the first time. "I think we're coming back," Amy Mickelson said on Sunday.

That's the ongoing theme with Johnson -- the guy simply keeps coming back ... from his final-round 80 at last year's U.S. Open ... from the brutal 72nd-hole penalty that cost him a spot in the playoff at the PGA Championship ... and, last week, from illness and a disastrous start that left him four over par through his first 13 holes. Johnson proceeded to go birdie, birdie, ace, birdie to salvage his round. A trip to the doctor helped him cope with glands that had swollen to the size of golf balls and were bulging over the collar of his polos. (With a nod to Johnson's soul patch, Justin Leonard joked that if Dustin had let a few whiskers on his neck grow, it would've look as if he had three chins.) Back-to-back 68s earned Johnson, 27, a spot in the final pairing for the third time in the last six majors. On Sunday he was four strokes back after Clarke's eagle on the 7th hole, but Johnson made birdie there and kept fighting, birdieing the 10th and 12th holes to get within two strokes of the lead. After a perfect drive on the par-5 14th;hole -- and after Clarke had laid up -- Johnson unsheathed his two-iron. "It was definitely a go situation," Johnson said. But he made a mediocre swing, and his ball drifted into the rarest real estate on a links course: out of bounds. His bid was over, but it's clear Johnson remains fearless enough to keep putting himself in position to have his heart broken, a prerequisite to finally breaking through.

"Dustin really doesn't think about a whole lot," Fowler said afterward, and he meant that as a compliment. "I don't think he's going to be too worried about it. He's someone who gets over things quickly. He'll be fine."

Like Johnson, Fowler continues to patiently build his résumé. At his Open debut last year on the Old Course, he showed a natural flair for links golf, placing 14th despite a jittery 79 to open the tournament. A quintessential feel player, Fowler seems more at home at the British Open than on the manicured playing fields of the PGA Tour, a phenomenon diagnosed by Tom Lehman. "This tournament brings out the creativity that a lot of the guys have but they're not forced to use," says Lehman, the 1996 British Open champ. Fowler put on an audacious display of the art of scoring at the close of his second round. "I made probably my worst swings I have all week the last five holes and I somehow played them one under," he said. The highlight came on the 17th hole; 170 yards from the hole, he flew his approach only 125 and let it bounce and roll and trickle until his ball cozied up near the flag.

On Saturday, Fowler was paired with golf's new boy king, McIlroy. They've had a nice little rivalry going back to the 2007 Walker Cup, when Fowler was pivotal in a crucial second-day foursomes match over McIlroy in the U.S.'s eventual one-point victory. Fowler, for all his flash, approaches his career with the solemnity of a middle manager, and he is keenly aware that McIlroy's recent achievements have devalued his own. (Rookie of the Year in 2010, 11 career top;10s on the PGA Tour but no victories.) Fowler is too modest to say it, but he took immense enjoyment in thumping McIlroy on Saturday, 68-73. On Sunday, Fowler's putter went cold, and he could do no better than par the first 13 holes, falling too far behind to make a run at Clarke. But Fowler saw the pint glass half-full after his tie for fifth. "I really haven't been in contention come Sunday in a major, so it definitely felt nice," he said.

Kim was similarly bullish after his own tie for fifth. Since his stellar near-miss at the 2010 Masters he has been derailed by wrist surgery and subsequent swing problems. Two months ago Kim, 25, went back to basics with his action, telling his coach, Adam Schriber, "Let's start over, like I'm a beginner." His motivation has also been renewed by all the attention lavished on golf's other bright lights. "I definitely feel like I've been forgotten," Kim says.

Trying to keep up with the other guys helps explain how tiny Northern Ireland has produced three major champions in the past 13 months, fueling the notion that American golf is in trouble. It was left to accidental philosopher Bubba Watson to sum up his countrymen's productive week in England. "Bad golf is bad golf, and good golf is good golf," Watson said. "It don't matter where you're from. It just so happens that this week we're playing good golf."

It is, indeed, only one tournament. But even with all of the lads coming up short on Sunday, their showing in the Open bodes well for a U.S. contingent that has needed some good news.

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