(AP) — The question comes up every other year in the months leading to the Ryder Cup.
It is an American perspective, offered by someone who has been involved in the matches every year since 1993. He will notice a group of Europeans on the putting green or the practice range, then turn and whisper, “Who’s their Peter Baker?”
Translation: Which player hardly anyone knows will morph into a major champion at the Ryder Cup?
Baker won three times in his 20 years on the European tour and only once finished in the top 10 on the Order of Merit. His best result in a major was a tie for 14th at Royal Birkdale in 1998. Then again, he played in only 16 majors. His best season came in 1993, when he won twice in Europe and qualified for his first and only Ryder Cup team.
But this was before The Golf Channel was around to televise the European tour, so even the most die-hard American golf fans knew next to nothing about the Englishman until September at The Belfry. Baker won three of his four matches, including a singles victory over U.S. stalwart Corey Pavin.
Another of his victims that week was Paul Azinger, now the U.S. captain, who was asked the same question Tuesday with a twist.
Could the next Peter Baker turn out to be an American?
“It’s possible we could have eight fresh faces,” Azinger said. “Our Peter Baker could be Anthony Kim.”
Ryder Cup aside, there is a slow but sure changing of the guard in American golf.
Tiger Woods is still atop the mountain, and it could take years to reach him even with the most experienced sherpas. Phil Mickelson might be getting slightly taller from all that stretching, but he isn’t going anywhere soon.
The fresh blood includes players like Kim, a 22-year-old who showed his firepower this month by winning the Wachovia Championship with by five shots with a record score. It includes Brandt Snedeker, who flirted with 59 as a rookie, won in Greensboro and showed plenty of panache in his wild final round at the Masters.
Boo Weekley has game to go with his homespun charm. J.B. Holmes won for the second time in his career at the FBR Open and is just outside the top eight in U.S. qualifying. Sean O’Hair and D.J. Trahan, both in their 20s, now have two PGA Tour victories.
“We’ve had a turnover in American golf,” Mickelson said. “We’ve had turnover the last few years. I think that we’ve got a lot of good, young players that are going to make the team this year, and I think that last year’s Presidents Cup team had a real energy boost from those young players who were energetic and enthused and motivated to play well. I think we’ll have, hopefully, the same thing on this year’s Ryder Cup team.”
Not to be forgotten is that Azinger, who directed the PGA of America to overhaul the qualifying system, now has four captain’s picks. European players expect him to go with experience, something Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington predicted a few weeks ago when asked which team was likely to have more rookies.
“Probably ours, just purely by the fact that Zinger has got four picks and he can pick experience if he wants,” Westwood said. “Which he will probably do.”
But Azinger is unpredictable. He showed a glimpse of that last year when asked whom he would take as two picks if he were captain of the Presidents Cup. He offered Holmes and Bubba Watson, with instructions to hit driver on every hole except for the par 3s.
Azinger wants the hot hand. No experience required, only trophies.
“Hal Sutton said it took a generation to get into this mess, and it will take a generation to get out of it,” Azinger said.
The mess is the Americans’ paltry record in an exhibition they once owned. Europe has captured the Ryder Cup eight of the last 11 times, including record margins (18 1/2-9 1/2) the last two matches.
“They’ve won five of the last six, and the one you win was a miracle comeback,” Azinger said, referring to Brookline in 1999. “Maybe we’re at the beginning of the generation that gets us out. I feel like the selection process we have now puts the right guys on the team. It’s going to be really difficult to make the team and not win.”
Even with new faces in American golf, Europe might have an even greater wealth of talent in the pipeline.
Justin Rose is likely to make his first Ryder Cup team, with Martin Kaymer, Nick Dougherty and Graeme McDowell in decent position heading into the summer. Britain is intrigued by a pair of pups named Rory McIlroy and Oliver Fisher.
There are no more Peter Bakers in the Ryder Cup. No surprises.
Part of that is more awareness of global golf, and the fact so many European players are making at least a half-dozen trips to America each year for majors or World Golf Championships.
Besides, Baker was merely a symbol.
Rookies didn’t carry Europe to all those victories. Dating to 1995, rookies contributed 19 percent of Europe’s total points, while U.S. rookies contributed about 30 percent.
Baker was symbolic of the European rookies who always seemed to deliver the crucial point – Philip Walton with the winning putt on the 18th green at Oak Hill in 1995; Phillip Price beating Mickelson in singles at The Belfry in 2002, followed by Paul McGinley’s cup-clinching putt; David Howell’s clutch 6-iron on the 17th hole at Oakland Hills that turned back a U.S. rally in 2004.
That’s what Azinger wants on his side.