Padraig Harrington (left) and Ian Poulter are two Europeans who could take home the green jacket.
Much attention has been paid lately to the emergence of a very fine collection of British players, and deservedly so. The talent pool, however, may run much deeper than that, crossing both the English Channel and the Irish Sea. In fact, golf could well be heading into a second phase of European domination every bit as impressive the First Europa Dynasty, with perhaps only bits and pieces leftover for the accidental American tourist.
The three championships that mean more than all the others to the Euros are the Masters, the Open Championship and the Ryder Cup, not necessarily in that order. While the seminal event in golf in the 1980s was probably Jack Nicklaus' storybook victory in the '86 Masters, the decade, and much of the one that followed it, belonged to the Europeans. From the moment Seve Ballesteros won the Masters in '80 right through to Jose Maria Olazabal's second green jacket in '99, the best players in the world were often found on the other side of the pond.
It was the dashing Ballesteros who dragged his compatriots, chipping and putting, into preeminence. Once Seve cleared the hurdle as the game's best player, it infused the golfers who saw him week-in and week-out with the confidence that they, too, could beat anyone. And, it didn't hurt that Ballesteros took particular delight in bumping off the Americans. If he didn't beat them himself, he was very nearly as pleased if Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam or Olazabal did. To some degree, Seve made them all possible. Of course, it wasn't as though the rest of the world sat out the decades of the '80s and '90s. South Africa had Nick Price. Australia had Greg Norman. And America offered up the occasional Curtis Strange, Payne Stewart or Mark O'Meara. But, you had to look no further than the results of the Ryder Cup to know where the real balance of power lay.
After the Europeans proved in the '83 Ryder Cup at PGA National that they were able to field a side far superior to anything the Americans faced in the good old "Great Britain & Ireland" days, the Europeans won in '85, '87, '89, '95 and '97, generally speaking on the backs of Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer, Woosnam and Olazabal. Then, after a quick cast change around the turn of the millennium, they began winning again in '02, '04 and '06. It's that changing of the European guard, and the implications of it, that are just now playing out. And this time, instead of a dashing Spaniard, it's an Irish accountant leading the way.
"The fact that I've gone and won a few helps the other guys because they know my game," says Padraig Harrington, twice a winner of the Open Championship and the owner of one PGA. "And I think that would have been the case with the guys in the '80s. If you're playing day-in and day-out, you know you're capable of playing as well. I'm sure Langer and Woosie and Lyle and all those would have seen Seve win and know that if they're on their game they can play every bit as well. That helps. You've got to see somebody."
So, yes, there is an incredibly strong cadre of British players at the moment, but it doesn't stop there. With the exception of Harrington, none of the up-and-coming Europeans have yet cracked the code in the major championships. But if, say, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter among the Brits, the young German Martin Kaymer, Irish lad Rory McIlroy, Sweden's Henrik Stenson or Spain's Sergio Garcia was to win at Augusta or at a major venue a bit further down the road, who would be shocked? And, behind that group, there is another level very nearly as promising, beginning with Brits Luke Donald, Ross Fisher, Justin Rose and Chris Wood, another Swede in Robert Karlsson, the Flying Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo, from Italy, and even Spain's long-hitting Alvaro Quiros. A major title from that gaggle would be somewhat more surprising, but not enough to give anyone the vapors.
"I think we've just got good strength and depth," says Westwood. "There's a lot of good players in Europe now and we're all playing well. That's the reason we're at the top of the world rankings because we're good players. The world rankings don't lie. They reflect how everybody plays and the consistency everybody shows."
Of course, there is the possibility that the current generation of American players, the Dustin Johnsons, Lucas Glovers, even the Rickie Fowlers, could be more successful at slowing the European juggernaut than the guys who currently populate the Champions Tour were. And, if golf's Superman, Tiger Woods, is able to overcome the battle with his own personal Kryptonite, maybe the next decade will be just like the last one -- a sole proprietorship.