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Europeans Face Stiff Competition . . . As Ever
After 30 years of Scottish control, Caledonian supremacy at the Open Championship began fading at the start of the 1890s when two English amateurs - John Ball in 1890 and Harold Hilton in 1892 - became the first "foreign" winners of the Claret Jug (first awarded in 1873 after Tom Morris Jr. had won the original Championship Belt outright for claiming four Open titles in succession).
When English professionals Harry Vardon (six career titles) and JH Taylor (five) showed up a few years later, the early Scottish dominance vanished entirely despite James Braid's efforts to have it reinstated. Scottish power had evolved into total British rule, but that, too, was interrupted in 1907 when an interloper from France of all places - Arnaud Massy - beat the Brits at their own game.
When Americans Walter Hagen (four titles) and Bobby Jones (three) won seven Opens between 1922 and 1930, it became apparent the New World would now be staking a rather strong claim to golf's oldest championship. And when South Africa's Bobby Locke (four) and Australia's Peter Thomson (four) enjoyed "Champion Golfer of the Year" status eight times in 10 years beginning in 1949 (Thomson would win his fifth Open in 1965), and Roberto de Vicenzo took the Jug home to Argentina in 1968, it meant that the tournament started by eight mostly ragtag Scottish pros in 1860 now boasted winners from all but one of the planet's many corners. Asia remains the only habitable continent without an Open champion.
Europeans have won the Jug/Belt/Gold Medal a total of 78 times. Exactly half of those victories came before the turn of the 20th century when competition from other parts of the word was somewhat limited. Sixty-three were won before the end of World War II. In the last 20 years, however, golfers from the Old World have hoisted the Jug only four times, making it clear that growing up close to the distinctive links courses of the Open Championship - courses owned by private clubs (the Old Course at St. Andrews and Carnoustie aside) that aren't in the habit of granting access to beginners, juniors and any old fly-by-night that fancies a game - doesn't really offer much of an advantage.
Today's equipment allows players, whatever their background, to launch long, high drives through the wind and over much of the trouble, then land high approach shots loaded with spin onto beautifully manicured greens with less need of the ground game that used to be required, and without too much fear of losing control of their eminently-controllable golf ball.
The line dividing those players capable of winning the Open from those whose unfamiliarity with this type of golf might render them impotent is therefore becoming ever more blurred. And with so many young players now fearless of trading blows with the game's established stars, and so many new winners emerging at the majors (10 of the last 14 have been won by first-timers) picking the champion with any great certainty has become more or less impossible.
Its illustrious history suggests Muirfield, originally designed by Tom Morris Sr. in 1891 and redesigned by Harry Colt in 1922, will do what it can to buck any recent trends, however, and allow one of only five or six elite players to take the spoils. Its last seven winners - Ernie Els (2002), Nick Faldo (1987 and 1992), Tom Watson (1980), Lee Trevino (1972), Jack Nicklaus (1966) and Gary Player (1959) are all golf royalty, and if the Lothian links is to crown another player of similar caliber (not equal perhaps, but similar) it could be argued it will entertain the hopes of just six of the 61 European players set to tee it up this week.
Trouble is, one of them is suffering a major lack of confidence and seems at sea with his new equipment; one is tinkering with his swing so much it's doubtful he even knows how close he is to his best form; and two former No. 1s are slipping down the world rankings as they both endure what, for them, have been very lackluster seasons so far.
Rory McIlroy, whose second-place finish in San Antonio in April suggested he might have overcome his early-season wobbles, finished well down the leaderboard at both the Memorial and U.S. Open in June before returning home and missing the cut at the Irish Open two weeks ago. Just as significant, however, is the Ulsterman's confessed disdain for links golf and its less-than-predictable bounces. Muirfield might be the least quirky and most predictable of the Open Championship venues, but McIlroy's ball is certainly more likely to take an unforeseen turn at Muirfield than it is at TPC Scottsdale, TPC Sawgrass, or TPC Deere Run, for instance.
Padraig Harrington, the tenacious tinkerer whose three major titles include two Open Championships, has shown the odd glimpse of decent form here and there this year. But the Irishman missed the cut at both the Irish and Scottish Opens recently, and his overall record in 2013 certainly doesn't suggest his game is where it needs to be if he is to join Els and Phil Mickelson with four major victories. Indeed, Harrington is 149th in total driving on the PGA Tour, 177th in greens in regulation, and 112th in strokes gained putting - a combination that has seen him drop to 73rd in the world rankings. No doubt Harrington will keep fiddling with his technique to satisfy his thirst for what he considers improvement, but it's hard to imagine him improving fast enough to contend at Muirfield.
The two former world number ones - Lee Westwood and Luke Donald - have made next to no noise this year and have thus attracted little attention at the bookmakers, drifting out to 30-1 and 33-1, respectively, for the Open Championship. Westwood is seven months into his American-residence experiment and, though there definitely have been some positive signs, he's still waiting for the plan to come to fruition. Westwood tweaked the blueprint earlier this week when he was seen working on his swing with instructor Sean Foley, but you'd think it was his suspect putting (154th on the PGA Tour) that needed attention rather than his consistently sound ball-striking.
Donald, meanwhile, certainly has the ability and all-round game to do well, and few people would be surprised if he did pull off his first major victory this week (Player's victory in '59 and Faldo's in '87 were their first Grand Slam titles). But one wonders if we saw the best of the Englishman between May 2011 and May 2012 when he racked up a total of 56 weeks atop the world rankings.
Europe's two other leading lights arrive in Scotland in good form and should be raring to go, however. Graeme McDowell is having a strangely inconsistent season made up largely of tournament wins (three) and missed cuts (six). But his most recent outing ended with an impressive four-shot victory at the French Open in Paris. At last year's Open Championship, the Northern Irishman played in the final group on Sunday with Adam Scott, but shot a disappointing 75 to fall into a tie for fifth with Donald.
McDowell seems a decent bet at 25-1, but even better value perhaps is the 20-1 you can get for Justin Rose, Europe's newest major champion. Everyone who watches golf felt Rose's victory at last month's U.S. Open had been coming for a while as his swing and ball-striking have grown so consistent after nearly four years of tutelage by Foley. Rose's putting stats could be better, but at first in total driving and 15th in GIR on the PGA Tour - and with a profound spike in confidence that surely must follow your first major triumph - there's no reason why the Englishman shouldn't challenge again.
Other Europeans capable of winning big events are British PGA champion Matteo Manessero of Italy, former WGC Match Play champion Ian Poulter of England, and former Players champions Sergio Garcia of Spain and Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who should really have won last week's Scottish Open at Castle Stuart.
Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Costaņo's star has been rising lately, but if he were to finish atop the giant yellow scoreboard on Sunday evening his victory at Muirfield might be seen in a similar light as that of Alf Perry, an English club pro who used an assortment of steel- and hickory-shafted clubs and a swing that writer Bernard Darwin called a "little bucolic" to surprise everyone, including Henry Cotton from whom he got a ride to the nearby Drem train station following the tournament, and win the 1935 championship.
Muirfield tends to favor legends, though. Europe might not have a legitimate one at the height of his powers right now, but it does have two or three legend-elects. If he can figure out his swing in time, Harrington could more or less seal the deal with a victory this week. If he can overcome his anti-links stance and come to terms with his new clubs, McIlroy could add to his legacy. And if Rose, who missed his first 21 cuts as a professional, could win his second major in a row he'd add another chapter to one of the greatest comeback stories the sport ever saw.
Now that's a legend fit for a course like Muirfield.
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 website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.