The Big Five, Part 2
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.
"While Seve certainly kicked things off for Europeans as a whole back in the day, my first real memory is of Sandy Lyle winning the Masters. Once he did that, it seemed like one of us was winning that event every year. So it wouldn't surprise me if Justin's victory becomes the first of many over the next few years. It could be a pretty significant turning point for all of us -- I certainly hope so."
Hold on though. Amidst this jolly old optimism, there remains a need for realism. Winning majors, many argue, has never been more difficult than it is today. The modern ball and large metal-headed drivers have narrowed the gap between great and good, good and not-so-good. That alone has made domination more difficult.
So do these English lads really have what it takes to win multiple majors? Short-game coach and former European Tour player Mark Roe -- who worked with Rose from April 2011 to the end of 2012 -- is unsurprised by his former charge leading the way.
"Justin is the most complete player of the five," he insists. "He's a consummate ball-striker, but he also has a great short game. He has shots that the others don't have. That helps him to be so much more aggressive. He isn't afraid of 'short-siding' himself. Statistically, his only Achilles heel is his putting."
For many, though, it would come as no shock to see Poulter be next to reach the summit of the major mountain. If it comes down to confidence, enjoying the pressure and hitting the brave shot when it really matters, the 37-year-old former assistant professional is the best of the bunch.
"The great thing about Poulter is that he can make the putt when it really counts," says Roe. "He did just that in the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale, when he thought his putt on the last green might give him a chance to win. And he did it over and over at the Ryder Cup, of course. But he's not the ball-striker some of the others are. He's not going to hit as many quality shots, tee-to-green. He's mercurial in that respect."
never equaled his iron play or his putting.
Photo: J.D. Cuban
Westwood, however, is the most long-suffering of the group. His T-3 finish at Muirfield is his 16th top-10 in the four majors. Give him Rose's short game and Roe feels Westwood would have at least five majors by now.
But short-game prowess is not a sure route to success. Take Donald, who in 2011 reached No. 1 in the world and topped the money list on both sides of the Atlantic, employing a game plan that relied heavily on his ability to make putt after putt. As of yet, that strategy has not worked in majors, although Donald's erratic driving is likely a factor.
No matter, few are those who cannot imagine each of England's finest becoming major champions. But, in the end, each will have to fend off the demons that bedevil every golfer yet to achieve a burning ambition. It can be done though. Only last month, an Englishman spoke to London's Daily Mail on the eve of the U.S. Open.
"If we're really honest, I think it has now reached the point where it's down to the fact if we [the English] can handle the pressure, we will win a major -- and if we can't, we won't," he said. "Given all that we've achieved, there's nothing to be gained from denying that fact. Speaking for myself, I look at my record over the last three years, my wins in America and what happened at the Ryder Cup, and I think I've shown I can deal with the pressure. So I've got to remain patient."
The speaker was Justin Rose.