BETHESDA, Md. — Memo to American golfers: Europeans occupy the top three spots in the world rankings, and European Tour players hold all four majors. Tiger Woods is hobbling on crutches with his left leg strapped into a medical ski boot. Is it crisis time, then, for America’s golfers on the eve of their national championship in which England’s Lee Westwood, not Phil Mickelson, has been installed by UK oddsmaker Ladbroke’s as the favorite?
Defending U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell certainly believes the PGA Tour’s elite players are lagging behind their transatlantic counterparts. He tried his best to play the politician (Congressional Country Club is only a 30-minute drive from the White House), but the straight-talking Northern Irishman couldn’t ignore the facts.
“There’s no doubt they’re playing catch-up at the majors,” he said, referring to his American peers. “I feel American golf is strong right now. But they’ve still got a bit of proving to do, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve got as much young talent as they’ve had in a long time, but this is young talent that’s going to have to step up and win major championships to catch European Tour players at the minute. We’ve got great young players here actually doing it, but I don’t doubt how much young talent they [the Americans] have.”
They say a week is a long time in politics. It took just a little longer for the golfing status quo to be turned upside down. Just 12 months ago, Woods was still No.1, Stewart Cink was the reigning British Open champion, Phil Mickelson was the Masters champion and Lucas Glover jetted into Pebble Beach as the defending champion of the U.S. Open, which no European had won since Tony Jacklin in 1970 . And then McDowell kicked down the door. He was quick to give credit to the American college system for molding him into a world-beater. He spent three years honing his craft at Alabama-Birmingham, learning to beat the enemy from within. “There’s no doubt it was a turning point in my career,” he said. “I came here as a decent amateur, and I left ready for the pro ranks.”
And yet it is the college system that McDowell’s coach, Pete Cowen, said is partly to blame for the current malaise sweeping through the PGA Tour. “The coaching and the college system in America has this obsession with scores and scoring in the present, and not about improvement,” Cowen said. “It is like saying, ‘We have got to climb Everest, but we are only halfway up.’ What’s the good in that? They get their young players halfway up, but they don’t teach them how to climb the other half.”
Cowen also helped Westwood reach the game’s summit for 16 weeks. “The Americans say the world rankings are biased towards the Europeans, but they are only biased towards Europe because we have the better players,” Cowen said. He explained that European coaches largely promote “a pyramid of learning.”
“You give the young players a really good base, and then you help them work all the way up to the top,” he said. “I’m not saying that America doesn’t have great players — of course it does — and if you look at a normal PGA Tour event the scoring is phenomenal, but in the long term how are they going to do at the highest level, at major championships?”
The leading candidates to be the new poster boy of American golf appear to be Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson. The first two have already experienced the feeling of a final round meltdown at a major championship, at the 2010 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, respectively. Rory McIlroy took one for the Europeans at the Masters in April. The young guns are learning the hard way that winning a major is as much a psychological battle as it is a demonstration of their phenomenal talent. McDowell, too, imploded with a final round 79 at the Players Championship, the self-styled “fifth major.”
“To sleep on a lead, having so many top players snapping at your heels, there’s no doubt the pressure is difficult when you’re out there under the microscope,” McDowell said. “To do what Tiger did in the early 2000s, the way he was putting golf tournaments away, was superhuman. Sometimes you’ve got to throw a few away to learn how to do it.”
The universally accepted toughest test in golf is about to shred the nerves of the 156 competitors at Congressional Country Club.
McIlroy showed his maturity and sportsmanship at Augusta when speaking so openly about his Masters meltdown. “I had five or six holes to think about what I was going to say,” he said with a laugh. He added that he and Johnson and Watney are now smart enough to cope better next time. McIlroy has the company of Johnson and Mickelson for the first two rounds: someone at the USGA clearly has a sense of humor.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els fully expects McIlroy to bounce back from that humiliating Sunday. “He made some mistakes there, and hopefully he’s learned from it and didn’t get too despondent about screwing up on that 10th hole,” Els said. “He’s 21 years old; he’s not perfect. Nobody is perfect. He’s a future No.1 without a doubt. He’s got that kind of talent. Boy, I think he’s going to win a lot of majors, but obviously he has to win the first to win a lot.”
McIlroy returned last week from a visit to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in his role as a UNICEF ambassador. He said no one there had a clue who he was. His golfing travails were understandably downsized. “I thought I had perspective until I went to Haiti,” McIlroy said. “It makes me realize how lucky I am just to sit here and drink a bottle of water.”
Memo to all golfers: this is the U.S. Open championship with a first prize of more than $1 million. But it’s just a game of ball and stick. Be lucky.