If Europe is to compete with any view to success at Oakland Hills in September, the lessons learned at Shinnecock Hills during the US Open should be put into effect immediately. How to do this is difficult, however, for it would not only require every Ryder Cup hopeful to play in every tournament in the US between now and September, but it would also require a rapid reconstruction of the rules governing who qualifies as a European player.
It is not necessary to analyse the statistics from Shinnecock to appreciate why our Ryder hopefuls were distinguished by their absence from the US Open leaderboard. We are led to understand that the greens were impossible. This is the consensus of European opinion, which was endorsed with astonishing alacrity by the Sky TV broadcasting golf pundits. What seemed to escape general attention was the fact that the Americans, in the main, handled Shinnecock's notorious greens with greater facility than their European counterparts.
The statistics make interesting reading. The top-10 US order of merit players averaged 72.6 strokes while the top-10 Europeans averaged 74. It is surely not necessary to expand upon the significance of this differential, as it is equally unnecessary to elaborate on the putting statistics. Lee Westwood was the highest placed European in the putting stakes, occupying 7th place, while Philip Price took the last place with 36 putts on the final day and failed to better 30 putts on any day. The statistics make clear that it was the putting that mattered for Price hit more fairways and greens in regulation than either Goosen or Mickelson.
He was indeed a wise man who said that you 'drive for show and putt for dough' for both Goosen and Mickelson needed only 24 putts on the last day and averaged under 30 throughout.
The American Tour players are not innately better putters but they are better-practised putters. They play weekly on superior, fast, difficult greens. Compared to Shinnecock, which has more links-like greens, the US Tour greens are more receptive to the high approach shot but they are, nevertheless, faster and more meanly contoured than their European Tour counterparts. A missed green in America is also more penalising and this also sharpens the ability to get up and down from difficult situations. Chipping and putting used to be a specialist feature of the game in Europe but it is no longer an ingredient of most European Tour venues.
There can be little doubt that the suffering experienced by the Europeans at Shinnecock is a consequence of their lack of confidence on really difficult putting surfaces. Players considered to have great short games and wonderful putting touches in Europe were made to look decidedly mediocre at Shinnecock. There is little point in claiming that the greens were unfair, for everyone was putting on the same greens. The simple fact is that the European players chipped and putted themselves out of contention. They had never encountered such fast greens and from an upbringing on the less challenging venues of the European Tour, they were also found wanting in confidence, concentration and guile.
Sergio Garcia was the sole European Ryder Cup hopeful in the top-20 of the US Open field. More important, six of the players currently qualifying to represent Europe failed to make the cut. This, more than anything else exemplifies the dire straits the European Tour finds itself in as the countdown to the Ryder Cup begins.
The situation has nothing to do with Shinnecock's greens or the exacting standards set by the USGA in setting up its Open venues, it is much more deep-seated than that. Consider the situation of the majority of our Cup hopefuls as we approach the final qualifying stages for entry to the Open Championship at Troon, now only days away.
At Sunningdale on today (June 28), 120 players are setting out to qualify for a place in the Open. Between them they have 236 Tour victories and over 50 of them are Tour winners. 13 have previous Ryder Cup experience and Langer, Woosnam and Olazabal have Green Jackets in their wardrobes. Four of those who represented Europe at the Belfry in 2002, including Colin Montgomerie, are so lacking in form that unless they make the top-15 at Sunningdale they face the real possibility that they will not be competing at Troon in July. They may, in the main, make up the 'old guard' but their numbers include Justin Rose, and that is concerning.
It is hard to remember a time (indeed, it is not possible) when the Europeans were not underdogs in the run-up to the Ryder Cup. In former times, however, there was always at least one or two Europeans who could hold their own against the best that the Americans could muster. Garcia excepted, this is not the situation this year. Rose offered the hope of some promise when he led the Masters in May and Harrington and Clarke have lifted the heart from time to time throughout the season. But it is hard to find any source of optimism in those automatically qualifying for a place in this year's team, and even harder to find succour in anyone qualifying for Langer's wild card pick.
The European Tour officials must ultimately be held responsible for the current showing of tournament players on this side of the Atlantic. Not only have they set the tournament venues on uninspiring courses with insipid greens, they have also shackled Captain Langer by imposing the ludicrous criteria about who qualifies as a European player. The lessons that have to be learned in Europe go way beyond Shinnecock's greens.
|| 28 - JUNE 2004