Wednesday, July 14, 2010

British Open Preview

Last week one of the big stories at the U.S. Women's Open was whether the American women could compete with their foreign counterparts. This week the U.S. men face the same question as they head for the British Open, where Ian Poulter of England recently stated that he felt our days as a great golfing power are numbered. His point was that our best guys are getting old, and we don't have any good young guys coming along.

The stats bear him out. Here are the top 20 golfers in the world, according to the World Golf Rankings:

1. T. Woods (USA)
2. P. Mickelson (USA)
3. L. Westwood (ENG)
4. S. Stricker (USA)
5. J. Furyk (USA)
6. E. Els (RSA)
7. L. Donald (ENG)
8. I. Poulter (ENG)
9. R. McIlroy (NIR)
1o. P. Casey (ENG)
11. G. McDowell (NIR)
12. A. Kim (USA)
13. M. Kaymer (GER)
14. R. Allenby (AUS)
15. P. Harrington (IRE)
16. J. Rose (ENG)
17. C. Villegas (COL)
18. Z. Johnson (USA)
19. E. Molinari (ITA)
20. R. Goosen (RSA)

There are only six Americans on that list. Here are their ages: Woods (34), Mickelson (40), Stricker (43), Furyk (40), Kim (25), and Johnson (34). That's an average age of 36. And Kim, the only young guy on the list, won't be at the British Open because he's laid up with a bad thumb.

By contrast, there are eight men from Great Britain or Ireland on the list. Here are their ages: Westwood (37), Donald (32), Poulter (34), McIlroy (21), Casey (32), McDowell (30), Harrington (38), and Rose (29). That's an average age of 31.6. So not only do the Brits have a deeper bench than we do, their guys are almost five years younger than ours.

In short, the next few years are looking grim for American golf. We could be headed for another period like the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Europeans like Faldo and Ballesteros ruled the roost.

Besides the nationalism angle, I will be following four stories this weekend. First, of course, is the question of whether Tiger can put together four good rounds -- something he hasn't done since the scandal broke. We're used to thinking of Tiger as a young man, but he's almost 35 -- and you have to wonder how many good years he has left. I think he will really regret throwing this one away.

Second is Rory McIlroy. At the age of only 21, the bettors have made him the second favorite (behind Woods) to win the tournament. If he does, that would be a sign that he is the next great golfer.

Third is Ernie Els. Els has had a great year so far -- he's won two tournaments and leads the FedEx Cup standings. But at the age of 40 he still only has three major titles on his resume. Can he get one more before he is too old?

Fourth is the Old Course itself. Since this is the 150th anniversary of the first Open, we are back in St. Andrews -- which tends to feature great tournaments and outstanding winners. Here are the champions I have seen win at St. Andrews: Jack Nicklaus (1978), Seve Ballesteros (1984), Nick Faldo (1990), John Daly (1995), and Tiger Woods (2000, 2005). That's a pretty good list, and one that strongly suggests that this Open will be won by someone who knows how to win majors.

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