I was sitting in the grandstand at the seventh hole of the U.S. Open on Sunday when a man next to me said, “Less than half the field are Americans.” I hadn’t counted it up and wasn’t sure I really cared and perhaps he didn’t either, but was just making conversation.
In the stands near us was a trio of Swedes. Below me I could see a man with British flags stuck in his straw hat. Spain invaded briefly when Sergio Garcia came through. Walking the grounds I ran into, literally or figuratively, Aussies and Germans, Koreans and Japanese, including Ryo Ishikawa drinking a Diet Coke.
There was a lot of talk on TV and radio during the tournament about the deeper meaning of back-to-back European champions in “our” tournament, and of what is now a record five straight majors without an American champion.
Perhaps being in our nation’s capital got the commentators worked up, patriotically speaking. One pointed out several countries that were turning out world-class golfers but getting government aid to do it — South Africa and Sweden were mentioned — and wondered if this were why America was falling behind.
I’m not sure I’d equate “tied for third” with “falling behind.” I’m very sure I wouldn’t advocate government funding to produce better golfers.
And I don’t think nationality matters all that much in 2011. The crowd at Congressional on Sunday — which, while somewhat diverse, was still dominated by white Americans — cheered for good shots and groaned for bad shots regardless of where the golfer was born, as far as I could tell. The cheers were a bit louder for Phil Mickelson than, say, Ishikawa, but that’s not surprising.
Rory McIlroy became the second Northern Irishman to win the title in as many years, which is amazing given the size of his country.
But that didn’t make his record-blasting weekend any less fun to watch. A decade ago, Tiger Woods was running away with tournaments, and the rest of the world didn’t whine about it, as I recall.
The rest of the world did, though, get to work. It’s telling that Europe has won four of the past five Ryder Cups. Davis Love, who will captain the U.S. team in 2012, knows he has his work cut out for him. He cites the rise of the talent pool in Europe to a pair of former stars from Over There.
“I think you can give Seve [Ballesteros] a lot of credit — Seve and Bernhard Langer — for letting the Europeans realize that they can work hard and come over here and compete with the Americans,” Love said.
“The world is a smaller place, so I think we’re going to have to get used to it. Look at the leader board every week on tour. It’s a third U.S. and a third European and then a third Asian or South African, Australian guys.”
The best American golfer — or at least he was until this latest injury — is in Florida, determining if he can still play the game and, unless he’s found another magic doctor, not getting any younger.
Mickelson turned 41 this weekend. Love had one of the best Open performances by an American and he’s 47.
Some of the best American golfers are great at consistent top finishes and winnings, but are still vying for a spot on the “best golfer never to win a major” list, including but hardly limited to Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar. The young Americans may see an opportunity to take Woods’s Superman cape, but only McIlroy, 22, has managed to touch it so far.
During Woods’s reign, young Americans have come along who seemed to fill the role of heir apparent — Chad Campbell and Charles Howell III, for instance. Among the current challengers are Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, and either may have a major in him. But we’ve yet to see that promise develop.
The closest thing we’ve seen to the “next” Tiger Woods, in fact, is McIlroy, and time will tell if he can keep doing what he did at Congressional. (Imagine the pressures that will be brought to bear on him for the British Open.)
None of those players is the next Woods, either, but each managed to do something their American counterparts have been unable to recently: win on the big stage. Then again, those men weren’t expected to fill those golf shoes, not to the degree the young Americans are.
Perhaps if we stop looking for the next Tiger Woods in our own back yard, that’s when — and where — we’ll find him.