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European Chances at the PGA Championship
In 2001, the Europeans came, the Europeans saw and the Europeans failed miserably. Not one of the 23 players from the other side of the Atlantic that made it into the 150-man starting line-up for the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club could finish inside the top 10. Only three managed to squeeze into the top 30. Eleven missed the cut.
Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, tied for 13th, 11 shots behind winner David Toms, finished as the top European. Two-time Masters champion Jose-Maria Olazabal could do no better than a tie for 37th. Nick Faldo, 44 years of age but still considered a threat at the majors, wound up tied for 51st despite opening with an impressive 67. Lee Westwood, the previous year's European Tour Order of Merit winner, shared 44th, while the man he replaced at the top - seven-straight Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie - got himself disqualified after signing for an incorrect scorecard in the final round.
Ten years ago, the European Tour didn't boast anything like the depth of talent and star power it does today and, with limited playing opportunities in America for all but the European contingent's brightest lights, the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club would have presented a wholly unfamiliar challenge. Even so, it was a fairly dismal performance all around.
This year, 35 Europeans (and 49 European Tour members) qualified for the 156-man field and, with 19 players in the world's top 50 - including the game's first-, second-, third- and fourth-ranked players, they'll be expecting to do a whole lot better.
Every time a major is played at a venue where patience, control and quiet determination seem to play an even bigger role than usual, Luke Donald gets listed among the favorites. And yet the 33-year-old Englishman, now in his 11th straight week as world No. 1, is 0-for-33 in Grand Slam events. A tie for third at his Masters debut in 2005 and a similar result at the following year's PGA Championship at Medinah, where he shared the lead going into the final round with Tiger Woods but shot 74, are his best finishes - a surprisingly disappointing record when you consider how often Donald finds the fairway or green and how calm he remains when he doesn't.
Perhaps a lack of confidence has been his undoing in the past but, with the biggest lead at the top of the rankings (1.84 points) since the end of April 2010, Donald surely can't lack self-belief. And with an average score of 66.8 from his last five rounds - fourth round at the Canadian Open played at a wicked Shaughnessy GC in Vancouver, and four rounds at Firestone last weekend - he appears to be in the sort of form that secured eight straight top-10s on the PGA Tour earlier in the year, 10 worldwide, and which saw him capture his sixth, seventh and eighth global career titles.
Despite his No.1 status and good showing last week, however, Donald is not the man whose chances Europe's bookies like the best. Their overwhelming favorite is Rory McIlroy, the fourth-ranked player in the world, who some agencies say has an 8-1 chance of winning his second major title of the year. The Ulsterman, like Donald, found some form in Akron (tied for sixth at 10-under 270) following a couple of forgettable weeks - a tie for 25th at the Open Championship and a T34 at Killarney in the Irish Open - and says he is back driving the ball almost as well as he was at the U.S. Open at Congressional where, you'll remember, he smashed the scoring record with a performance most observers will tell you he is more than capable of repeating . . . and often.
Last week, McIlroy announced that next year he would be re-joining the PGA Tour whose weather and venues he feels are better suited to his game than those in Europe. It's hard to imagine any golf course, anywhere in the world, where McIlroy couldn't distance himself from any field. But he seems convinced that tree-lined, parkland-style layouts where a long, straight, high ball fits best are where he will thrive. The 7,467-yard Atlanta Athletic Club is probably as close to his model of a perfect course as Congressional was, possibly more so. It has the trees, water, length, speedy greens and heat he clearly missed at Royal St. George's.
Wedged between McIlroy and Donald in the betting is Westwood, the world No. 2 who has 54 fruitless major championships behind him. Actually "fruitless" is a bit harsh as he has nine top-10 finishes in all, and six top-threes from his last 14.
Westwood also had a good weekend in Ohio, coming in tied for ninth with a closing 65 after beginning to work with putting gurus Dave Stockton and Dave Stockton Jr. In his press conference Sunday, Westwood looked forward to this week, saying he was glad to hear reports the course would play much tougher than Firestone as he felt the tougher the course the better his chances would be.
One wonders how this 38-year-old will cope with the needle touching 100 degrees and whether he'll be able to perform as close to his best as McIlroy and the other youngsters will to theirs. But don't forget Westwood won in a hot and steamy Indonesia earlier this year. And among his 32 other victories are wins in South Africa, Portugal, Dubai and Spain. For sure, Westy can take the heat.
Nor should those looking for a winner forget Westwood will be doubly motivated to break his major duck following the success of his good friend Darren Clarke in the Open Championship. Westwood certainly didn't need Clarke to win to convince him that he too could win a major, but you can bet the desire to pull alongside his management company stable-mate (both are Chubby Chandler's boys) and frequent Ryder Cup partner will be strong.
What about Clarke himself? Can he possibly win another major? Possibly . . . sure . . . why not? A second, though, would surely be less likely than the first. And no one, I say no one, would knock him for coasting into retirement content with the glorious memories of his sensational Sunday in Sandwich.
Europe's strongest chance of landing just its fifth PGA Championship winner surely rests then with Donald, McIlroy or Westwood. But perhaps you shouldn't rule out defending champion Martin Kaymer, who isn't having a great season by any means but is still fourth in the Race to Dubai and finished with a nice 67 in Akron.
The man he credits with a lot of Europe's recent success, Padraig Harrington, is another player not enjoying the best of times but who has reason to be hopeful. Leaving a coach as experienced and knowledgeable as Bob Torrance might not be considered a particularly deft move, but there's little doubt the Irishman needed something to change. Who knows, the split might just work in his favor. And Simon Dyson, winner of the Irish Open two weeks ago, is no stranger to the PGA having played in three previous championships, including 2007 when he finished tied for sixth with a closing 64 and last year when he tied for 12th.
With so many Australian, South African, Asian, South American and, of course, American contenders at this year's PGA Championship, there's no guarantee a European will in it. But it's a safe bet they'll fare better at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011 than they did in 2001.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.