When the British Open begins Thursday at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, the contingent of Americans who will contend for the title will be not only on foreign soil, but will arrive in a truly unprecedented spot. None of the last five major champions — dating from Graeme McDowell’s victory in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — is from the United States. Moreover, none of the top four players in the world — Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, German Martin Kaymer and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy — is American.
In a sport in which Americans won every Masters from 1934 to ’73, every U.S. Open from 1926 to ’63 and even 12 of 14 British Opens from 1970 to ’83, this amounts to a continental shift.
“It’s obvious that world golf as a whole has become so much stronger,” said Phil Mickelson, the last American to take a major, the 2010 Masters, “and that international and European golf has become world-class and top-notch and [boasts] some of the best players in the world.”
This week’s event appears to represent the Americans’ least likely chance to break through. Since 1934, the year the Masters was founded, Americans have won 29 British Opens, compared to 62 U.S. Opens, 62 PGA Championships and 55 Masters over the same span.
Since the 1980s and early 1990s, when an international contingent led by Seve Ballesteros of Spain, Greg Norman of Australia, Nick Price of Zimbabwe and Nick Faldo of England began to broaden the game’s scope, the once-presumed American dominance in golf has been iffy at best. In 1994, when the major titles went to Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal, South Africa’s Ernie Els and Price (who won both the British Open and the PGA), golf seemed global. Never, though, had it reached this level, in which choosing an American who might win the next major seems so muddled.
Mickelson can hardly be considered a contender; he has one top-10 finish in 17 Open appearances. The top-ranked American, No. 5 Steve Stricker, hasn’t finished in the top five at a major since 1999. Matt Kuchar, ranked eighth in the world, has never posted a top five.
There is an American group — including Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler — from which much is expected, a group constantly referred to as the next generation of American golf. It is that group that allows Mickelson to say, “I’m actually very encouraged with where our American golfers are.” Americans are getting past the Woods-Mickelson era, and it’s only a matter of time before one or more of the younger players breaks through.
“For a while there you had Tiger, you had Phil, obviously Steve Stricker,” said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland. “You really didn’t have a lot of standouts outside of the big two or three. I think they have a lot of talent spread across the age brackets now, and I think they’re sort of on the verge of being very strong again and winning major championships and winning globally.”
Yet those players have not yet broken through. Johnson led the 2010 U.S. Open after three rounds but lost to McDowell. Watson made it to a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship, and lost to Kaymer. Fowler, 22, has started a vibrant, flat-brimmed fashion craze among teenage golf fans, yet he hasn’t yet won a PGA Tour event.
Keep going. Can anyone name the low American at the most recent major, the U.S. Open, less than a month ago at Congressional? That would be Kevin Chappell, a 25-year-old Californian who has played a total of 25 events on the PGA Tour. McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland who is widely heralded as the game’s next star, thumped the field there. The final top 10 at the U.S. Open: Two Americans (Chappell and Robert Garrigus) and eight international players from seven countries on four continents.
The successes of Woods and Mickelson — who own nine of the last 12 major championships won by Americans dating from 2005 — covered up for what may have been some weaknesses in the U.S. contingent. The only other Americans to win majors in that time — Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink — have thus far failed to build on their breakthroughs. American teams, who won the Ryder Cup in 1959 and didn’t relinquish it until 1985, have lost six of the last eight biennial team events against their counterparts from Europe.
McDowell puts forth what, for many, is a logical explanation: Such trends go in cycles. But not everyone agrees. There is a line of thought that American players have become too complacent, that the money on the PGA Tour is too easy to come by. Pursuing greatness, and the pressure that comes with it, is unnecessary, the thinking goes, so American players have become soft.
“At some point in time, a player has to decide: Do I really want to be a champion, or do I want to have a great career and make a lot of money and be comfortable?” said Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion who will call action at Royal St. George’s for ESPN. “There are some decisions that you have to make, and some of them are turning down lots of money to go play in some events that you don’t want to go play in — traveling around the world, doing some things you need to do to make yourself a better player.
“There is some of that missing in our society right now. This is a society thing; this isn’t just a golf thing.”
Enter Watson, the brilliantly talented Floridian who plays with feel and flair and has the ability to contend for major championships. Watson, though, put a further emphasis on the difference between some American golfers and those from abroad when he traveled earlier this month to play in the French Open, an atypical experience for him. He missed the cut, and proceeded to identify some of Paris’s landmarks as “the big tower,” “an arch,” and asking, “Then what’s that, it starts with an ‘L?’” With the weekend freed up, he said he would try to sightsee some more, but ultimately wanted to “get home as fast as possible.”
“They don’t get it because they have everything in America, don’t they?” Chubby Chandler, the agent for Westwood, McIlroy and Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, among others, told Scottish newspaper the Scotsman afterward. “Everything over there is easy for them.”
It has not been easy, not in majors, not recently. And as the next major approaches, with McIlroy as the favorite, the major titles held by players from around the globe and Woods out indefinitely, it doesn’t appear Americans’ collection of championships will get easier anytime soon.