Americans still upbeat
Top players believe they can win British
With Tiger Woods injured, Phil Mickelson sporting a lousy British Open record, and the six other Americans ranked in the top 20 still looking for their first major championship, might it take a Ben Curtis-like stunner by an obscure Yank to end a five-major US drought?
The 140th British Open starts this morning at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, a quirky venue dominated by blind shots that is hosting the Open for the 14th time. And while the roster of previous winners has produced Hall of Famers (Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, and Greg Norman), it’s also provided some unknowns (Jack White, R.A. Whitcombe, Curtis). Fans of US golf probably don’t care who wins, as long as someone from the 52-player American contingent puts an end to what’s already become history. Never before had five consecutive majors been won by non-Americans.
What started with Graeme McDowell at last year’s US Open, and followed by Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open, Martin Kaymer at the PGA, Charl Schwartzel at this year’s Masters, and Rory McIlroy at last month’s US Open, has now become one of the main plotlines as play in the season’s third major gets underway.
Can an American win this British Open? If you answer yes, which player would you pick?
“It’s not that we’re not trying,’’ said Nick Watney, who might be the leading US contender, with two wins already this year. “I think golf globally and specifically in Europe is very strong. It’s definitely not an accident that they’re ranked the top four in the world. I would love to put my name in the mix for majors and hopefully end the drought.’’
Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Kaymer, and McIlroy own the first four spots in the world rankings, and are considered the favorites this week. But like Watney and so many other Americans, Donald and Westwood are searching for their first major, and hope playing in their British back yard will provide some positive karma.
“I guess now is as good a time as any,’’ said Donald, already with three wins this year, including last week’s Scottish Open. “I’ve obviously played well enough to get to the top, but certainly winning a major would be the icing on a year that has been very, very successful so far.’’
When Norman won his second British Open at Royal St. George’s in 1993, he was ranked No. 3 in the world, perhaps giving Europe’s current Fab Four an extra boost. But when Curtis triumphed there in 2003, he was ranked 396th. That should allow almost everyone in the field a reason to believe.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a first-time winner this week,’’ said Mickelson, who tied for 59th in 2003 and has just one top-10 finish in 17 British Open appearances. “But to win any tournament, especially a major championship, you need to play well, obviously, and you also need to have a bit of luck on your side.’’
Mickelson is the most recent American to win a major, last year’s Masters. Since then, a youthful international presence has emerged, punctuated by the 22-year-old McIlroy’s eight-shot victory at the US Open in his most recent start. Four of the last five major winners are in their 20s; McDowell was 30 when he won the 2010 US Open.
One knock on the Americans at the British Open, despite them winning 11 of the previous 16, is their lack of experience with true links golf. Donald, Westwood, McIlroy, and McDowell grew up playing it, and when the wind spikes and the weather sours - like the forecast is calling for at Royal St. George’s this week - it might mean an advantage for the Europeans.
All it takes, though, is one. Curtis proved that.
“I think everybody loves an underdog,’’ Curtis said.
True. It’s just rare that the Americans, collectively, are now considered that way.
Curtis used a local caddie when he won at Royal St. George’s, and was smart enough to not mess with what worked, ultimately keeping Andy Sutton on his bag for seven years. The pair went their separate ways last year, but left on good terms. Sutton, in fact, surprised Curtis by popping over earlier this week when the ’03 champion was working the grill at the house he’s renting, a slight upgrade from the dorm-like apartment he and his wife were in eight years ago. “We went from the outhouse to the mansion,’’ Curtis said. Sutton is working for Aaron Baddeley this week. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the R&A has paired Baddeley and Curtis for the first two rounds. Paul Casey is the third member of the group . . . Thomas Bjorn, the man who was in control of the ’03 British Open before a late collapse made Curtis the winner, was the first alternate this week, but he got into the field when Vijay Singh - who tied Bjorn for second eight years ago - withdrew with a back injury.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.