The Big Five, Part 2
Justin Rose's win at Merion and Lee Westwood's close call at Muirfield underscore the rising fortunes of England's golden generation, which also includes Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. With Oak Hill around the corner, who's ready to take the next major step?
The enduring legend doesn't quite fit the facts exactly, but no matter. In the immediate aftermath of the late and forever-great Seve Ballesteros' groundbreaking victory at the 1979 British Open, nothing much really changed at the sharpest end of the golf world. Not right away at least. Americans continued to dominate the four most important events on the calendar (winning 15 of the next 19) and the long-dormant Europeans -- the charismatic Spaniard apart -- maintained their down-bill roles as largely unheralded members of the supporting cast.
But change was eventually afoot. Drastic change. Something clicked when, five summers after his breakthrough at the highest level, Ballesteros won his fourth major championship amidst iconic scenes of celebration aboard the 18th green of the world's most famous golf venue, the Old Course at St. Andrews. A new era was born. Uncle Sam's most favored nephews were suddenly golf's redheaded stepchildren, as European after European grabbed a seat at the head of the game's top table.
By the time Ballesteros claimed his fifth and last Grand Slam title at Royal Lytham in 1988, the Old World was in a new place as far as majors were concerned. By then, a German (!), Bernhard Langer, had won the Masters; a Scot, Sandy Lyle, had been Masters and British Open champion (as well as a winner at the Players); and an Englishman, Nick Faldo, had picked up the first of what would eventually evolve into six major victories.
Between 1988 and the end of the 20th century, that trend accelerated. Welshman Ian Woosnam -- the final and most diminutive member of Europe's so-called "Big Five" -- was next to break through, at the 1991 Masters. In all, 10 more major titles made their way to the European continent, won by five different players from five different countries (Woosnam, Faldo, Langer, José Maria Olazábal of Spain and Scotland's Paul Lawrie).
It took a wee while to sink in, but the message absorbed by Ballesteros' multi-lingual colleagues was clear: "Seve is great and he will always be our spiritual leader, but we can beat him at least some of the time. We know that. So maybe we can win majors too. Let's go do it."
Now fast forward to the present day. Starting with the upcoming PGA Championship, the strong feeling in Europe is that Justin Rose's victory in last month's U.S. Open has the potential to provide a similar impetus for another five-strong group -- Rose, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Paul Casey -- England's so-called "golden generation."
Rose certainly thinks so. "We really don't go into it with a team mentality," he says. "But we are friends with one another. When you see one of your friends and rivals go ahead and do it, and you believe yourself to be capable of achieving what they're achieving, it gives you that incentive and that belief that you can go ahead and do it. I'm sure the boys are looking at it and thinking, 'OK, my turn could be around the corner if I persevere.' "
On the other hand, victory by one could have the opposite effect and only increase the pressure, self-induced or otherwise, felt by the others. Frustration is just as likely as inspiration.
"I try not to look at it that way," shrugs Donald, who played with Rose in the final round at Merion. "I try to see it as a challenge. I'm always searching for ways to improve and ways to keep giving myself chances. I feel like my turn is coming."
"Oh, I'd say it already has," points out Casey, who recently won the Irish Open, his first victory in more than two years. "For sure. When Rory [McIlroy] won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the PGA last year there really wasn't much of a feeling that this was a boost for the rest of us. He is special and everyone expected him to win multiple majors. But Justin winning is a little different. He's great, but as for most of us, there was no guarantee he would ever win a U.S. Open. So his victory means a lot more to us as players.
"I can see too the correlation with Seve's Open win in 1979," he continues. "He kicked things off for the Europeans back then, and I think Justin's win will do the same for the English lads. I'd like to think we could all be trading majors over the next few years. 'History repeats itself' is a cliché for a reason."
And it almost did in the British Open at Muirfield. Following Rose's breakthrough, Westwood led the world's oldest championship by two shots with 18 holes to play, only to finish T-3 alongside a fast-finishing Poulter.
Obvious parallels are easy to draw between the "Big Five" and today's "English Elite." Casey, the most naturally gifted of the group, is the Seve figure. Donald is Langer, the grinder with the great short game. Rose is Faldo, tall and technically efficient. Westwood is Lyle, co-joined by their superior ball-striking. And Poulter is Woosnam, working-class heroes both.
Then again, it was supposed to have happened long before Rose's big-time win. Until Merion 2013, this modern-day class of five was viewed with disappointment rather than delight. Rose's victory, in fact, was the first in 219 collective major starts -- hardly a record to inspire confidence.
Yes, they came close on numerous occasions -- most notably Westwood, at 40 the oldest of the bunch -- but none were able to get the job done when it mattered most. Before Rose, in fact, the last Englishman to win a major was Faldo at the 1996 Masters. And the most recent victory by a player from Great Britain was Lawrie's British Open at Carnoustie in 1999.
Still, that period of British futility is a little misleading, as Ken Schofield, the former executive director of the European Tour, is quick to point out.
"Taking in the European continent as a whole, we've been on a roll since [Ireland's] Padraig Harrington won the first of his three majors six years ago," says Schofield, who retired in 2004 after 30 years with the tour. "We now have six major champions [accounting for nine victories] in this century, after going 32 events without a win between Carnoustie '99 and Carnoustie '07. The longest gap since is five. That's good trading. And there is no doubt that this group of Englishmen has the potential to speed up that rate of production."
Others agree. Another Englishman, David Lynn, the unlikely runner-up in last year's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, is one who sees nothing but good things ahead for his compatriots. And he too feels a cozy connection with the past.
"Justin's win gave all of us a boost," he confirms. "It's not something anyone will dwell on while working on the range. But it will make a difference when one of us gets into contention at a major. In fact, not even when we get into contention. I can see myself drawing inspiration from Justin's win just standing on the first tee at Oak Hill.