Why Europeans Are Dominating Men’s Professional Golf
On Thursday, August 11th I will step back into the broadcast booth at the PGA for my last telecast of the year. I often get asked how much broadcasting I am doing these days. Since I’ve joined the Champion’s Tour, my schedule has been reduced to three events: The Masters (Direct TV and www.masters.com), The Legends of Golf (Golf Channel and CBS), and the PGA Championship (Direct TV and www.pga.com). This schedule works well for me to be able to focus more on my own competitive game while keeping me connected to the broadcasting world.
The PGA Championship will once again be held at the Atlanta Athletic Club where David Toms won the same major held there in 2001. In 2008, Padraig Harrington broke the 78-year streak of non-Europeans having won the PGA. The last European to win the PGA prior to Padraig was Tommy Armour, “The Silver Scot”, in 1930. I got to play with his grandson, Tommy Armour III, in the final round of the Regions Tradition in Birmingham earlier this year.
My long-time friend and fellow Champion’s Tour player, Morris Hatalsky, posed a probing question to me while we were hitting balls next to one another on the driving range at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, NY. “Why do you think the Europeans are dominating the majors and are a stronger force than ever before on the world stage”, Morris asked? Members of the European Tour have won six consecutive majors with Darren Clarke having just picked us his first major at the Open Championship this month. What a popular win and I am so happy for Darren who lost his precious wife Heather to breast cancer in 2006.
The U.S. and American male golfers are mired in their longest drought of the modern Grand Slam era. Phil Mickelson was the last American to capture a major title, more than a year ago at the 2010 Masters. Since then, it’s been three golfers from Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Darren Clarke), two from South Africa (Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen who both play full-time on the European Tour) and one from Germany (Martin Kaymer). This year’s Masters field had more foreign golfers than any time in history. You look at the current top 50 in golf’s world rankings and fewer Americans are at the top. In fact, the top four world-ranked players are all Europeans. That’s a first!
Getting back to Morris’ question, after a pause and some reflection, I remarked, “I think it has something to do with the way we are teaching golf in the US. Over here, coaches are more concerned with getting their players to connect the dots in the swing. They are overly concerned with achieving a perfect plane, with perfect clubface position, and molding the golfer into their [the coach’s] particular style of swing.” Morris encouraged me to continue. “In Europe, golfers learn their swing style early, then learn how to play golf, shape shots, compress the ball, hit it low, hit it high, make small swings, make big ones, and score around the greens. They never deviate from their swing style, whatever it is, and thus they master it.” I was thinking of the famous soccer player Pele who once said that it takes 1,000 repetitions to learn a new soccer move, but 10,000 to master it. Morris agreed and interjected, “With the varying playing conditions the European’s face, it helps to make them shot makers.” “How so”, I asked? “Well”, Morris continued, “they play in all sorts of weather, rain or shine. They play soft conditions, so soft sometimes that the greens crews go several days without mowing the fairways. Then they head to Scotland or the desert where the ball won’t stop and sometimes neither will the wind.” I responded, “And, as a result, they learn to read lies better because of all the various grasses and conditions, and they learn to control trajectory better because of the wind and firm conditions.” “That’s exactly it”, Morris said, “they learn how to really control the golf ball.”
Englishman Roger Chapman, who has been my co-pilot recently, making trips to Hamilton, NY for the US Senior Open Qualifying and then flying with me to Montreal/Mirabel gives a similar viewpoint. Roger has been a good player for a long time. He once beat Hal Sutton twice at Cypress Point in the 1981 Walker Cup. “Chappy”, as I refer to him, explains, “We learn to play golf in England by learning the swing at an early age. That swing remains with us for life; it’s our fingerprint. Then we learn how to play golf using that swing. We aren’t ball-beaters though. In fact, many of our golf courses don’t even have driving ranges. We learn to play “the conditions” and that varies so greatly. We learn to adapt even from an early age.”
Tom Lehman, who is leading the Champion’s Tour in 2011, is a former Ryder Cup Team Captain and was my roommate for the week in the Montreal Championship, points out that “we have to be missing something. European players seem to have a complete game; there are no gaps. You ask them to hit a 93-yard pitching wedge in all kinds of weather conditions and they can hit it hole high. American players’ games are good but perhaps more one-dimensional. They can launch the booming drive with 11 degrees launch angle and 2200 rpm spin rate, but typically aren’t the shot-makers you see in Europe. Perhaps the European advantage is related to their playing in all kinds of weather but it’s also related to opportunity. More European players are coming over to the U.S. to play junior golf and attend college than any time in history. It makes it more difficult for many of our talented players to get a spot playing for a top college program. The competition has never been like this before.”
Andy Martinez, Tom’s famous caddie, interjects, “It’s the same in tennis, too. The Europeans are dominating and for the same reasons. In Europe, kids are taught how to spin the ball, hit drop shots, top spin backhands, and forehands down the line, etc. In the U.S., it’s all about the form and the serve and ground strokes.” Andy, by the way, is an accomplished tennis player and his brother is a tennis pro.
So with this background, I headed over to the UK, four days after finishing 5th at Pebble Beach in the Nature Valley First Tee Championship, to attempt to qualify for the Senior Open Championship in Britain. Many had heard on television during the Pebble Beach tournament that I was exempt, but the truth is that I was not. I was last year as a 50-year old past PGA Tour winner. But that’s a one-time only exemption. I needed to either be in the top 30 money winners on last year’s PGA Champion’s Tour or in the top 8 money winners that weren’t already exempt through the Montreal Championship (the week before Pebble Beach). On a side note, I actually asked the Senior Open Championship Director why they didn’t include Pebble Beach’s money in their calculations since it was two weeks prior. The response they gave me was, “I’m not sure of the rationale behind the decision unless Pebble Beach was a change in weeks from what was originally scheduled. I’ll certainly make inquiries.”
The qualifiers for the Senior Open Championship are held on three different courses that are assigned randomly. I was assigned Betchworth Park in Dorking, UK, just a few miles from the Championship site at Walton Heath. My caddie, Cliff, wanted to make the trip, too. He didn’t want to give any opportunity for my first win to be shared by someone else. He sensed that win might be coming soon. Additionally, he made it a family affair, taking his two precious daughters with him.
Marianna and I headed over on Thursday afternoon and arrived in London Friday afternoon. It took an inordinate amount of time to pick up the rental car at London Heathrow which of course was a manual drive on the right. We were staying with our friends the Chapmans at their home in Ascot, not too far from Wentworth where I played the World Matchplay Championships in 1983. Seve sent me home in the second round then after beating me 2 and 1 in the 36-hole match. I was actually 1 up after the first 18, shot four strokes better in the afternoon and lost. Ouchhh!
Marianna elected to take the role of navigator, while I attempted to drive to Ascot in rush hour traffic. I hadn’t even left the parking lot of the rental car office when I got my first horn blown at me. I pulled up to a gate which I thought would open, but it didn’t. I spent the next 3 minutes trying to find reverse on the gear shift. Finally, I discovered on my own that there’s a little cylinder under the shift that needs to be pulled up before it will enter reverse. I was freed and thrown into a swarm of fast-moving cars all going the wrong way! So I played the role of the follower and joined them. Thankfully, I am now an accomplished UK driver with over 10 hours of driving time logged on the wrong side of the road.
After my first night of double-digit hours of sleep in over a decade, I ventured out to find the course on Saturday afternoon. The 50-minute drive only took me just over 2 hours, but I did get to see more of the country and talk to plenty of locals. Getting directions from strangers in the UK was like asking one’s grandmother for her favorite recipe. She knows how to get it done but can’t tell you what ingredients to include or how much to use. It seemed every time I stopped for help I heard something like this, “You’ve got to go over there, take the 270 in the round-about, to the 2nd mini-round, then a 90 left. Look for it on the right.”
When I finally arrived at the course, Cliff had already left having finished walking the course and mapping yardages. I had warmed up earlier at Roger’s home club near Sunningdale, so I headed straight for the course. I played 12 holes on the 6300-yard par 69 layout that was celebrating their centennial. It was the narrowest course I’d ever seen. The firm, tree-lined fairways averaged only 15 yards wide. There’s a little irrigation on the course, but not much. Many of the holes doglegged in the landing zone, making the drive even more difficult. I later found out that the fairways are not usually this narrow. It is due to the economy and the need to reduce costs that they have elected to reduce the areas needing regular mowing. The rough was also deeper than usual (again because of the economy), but was a graduated rough from 1½ inches to over 6 inches deep. The poa annual greens were very small, most even smaller than Pebble Beach, and slopey too! Most of them sloped from left to right, reminding me of Del Monte in that you never want to miss to the left. They were very grainy for poa greens and quite slow, probably around 10 on the stimpmeter. Some of the greens, because of their severity of slope were even slower.
The next day Cliff and I played 18 holes mostly by ourselves. Cliff pulled the umbrella out of the bag a record 13 times during the day. It was a typical English day. The same was forecasted for Monday’s qualifying day, except for increased winds. We were joined by two members at different times who wanted to see me play their course. Cliff and I worked hard on the greens, but I struggled to get a feel for their speed and break. After the round, we were met by the superintendent and the host pro, Andy. They both wanted my feedback of the course, which I was happy to give them. It was mostly positive with some questions about the mowing patterns.
My tee time was set for 8:10am. I would need to get up at 4:45am in order to make the drive and have adequate preparation for practice. I wouldn’t let myself think what time that would be in California. I was fairly well adjusted to the time difference anyway. The day was as forecasted – cool, cloudy, windy and periods of light rain. My practice went well on the tee. I was getting into my ball-striking groove. The practice putting green was even more severely sloped than on the course. I was hoping to get some speed practice, which was difficult at best. I felt confident going to the first tee.
The first hole is a difficult slight dogleg to the right, a par 4 starting hole, 433 yards uphill and straight into the wind. In England, those who set up the course don’t make alterations for the wind. It is common to see tees placed the same on days when strong winds are completely opposite. Par is almost meaningless. One can hit an 8-iron second shot to a par 5 and then not be able to reach a par 4 in regulation. In the US, the PGA tour staff has a different philosophy. They always look at the weather forecast before setting the tees and hole positions and often alter their plan accordingly.
After a good low stinger drive, I was left with a 187-yard second shot to a hole position in the far right side of the green. I played a low, stinger 3-iron that faded ever so slightly to the right of the flag. It landed just short of hole high on the fringe and took a big bounce over the back right side of the green. Now I was faced with a difficult flop pitch shot that must land on the green and roll downhill. I hit a really good shot and tapped in for par. I knew I was lucky to make par.
The second hole was a beautiful uphill par 3 of 175 yards cut out of a forest of trees and again playing straight into the wind. The hole was in the far back of the green. I knew even a low 5-iron wouldn’t get me to the flag, so 4-iron had to be the club. Cliff and I agreed on a -3 shot (that means 3 yards less than a stock or standard shot would produce). I pured the shot right at the flag only to see the ball land 4 yards past the flag and bound over the green. Facing a short downhill chip from a scruffy downhill lie in which I couldn’t bump and run required perfect judgment and contact. I cut under the shot just a little too much and the ball came up 9 feet short of the hole. I misjudged the break and the speed and left the downhill putt short. I was one over after two holes and felt like I had played well.
I did get on a roll after that and birdied the next three downwind par 4’s in a row, hitting good drives in the short rough, then sand wedges to 4-6 feet from the flag on each of them. My judgment of the spin, bounce, and roll on all three of the wedge shots was dead on. I parred the next three holes in regulation, lipping out one putt for birdie and missing a 12-footer on another. At 9th (the first par 5) I hit a slicing 5-wood second shot from the rough around the trees from 210 yards to within 10 feet of the flag for an eagle. The left to right break I played 5 inches out was one inch off due to lack of speed. The putt curled 180 degrees around the right lip. But still it was a birdie and I was three under par on the first nine.
How quickly the round changed character after I bogeyed the short 155 yard par 3 10th. I had hit a -2 draw 7-iron that somehow rode the wind that was supposed to be left to right. The ball again landed 4 yards past the flag but this time took a big bounce over the green. After a good pitch to 15 feet, I lipped out the putt, playing too much break this time. The 11th hole cost me another stroke after I drew my 6-iron approach a little that rode the wind to the fringe of the green and bounced over the back left. I hit some good shots at 12 and 13 and made solid pars. The 12-foot birdie try at #12 lipped out; again I played too much break.
The 14th proved to be disastrous for me just as it had the week before at Pebble. The sharp dogleg to the left par 4 was playing into the wind off the tee. I had 248 yards to the turning point, and I visualized hitting a high driver. I faded the ball about seven yards to the right of my aim and saw the ball take a big left bounce. Thinking I was in the fairway and in good shape, I was surprised when I arrived at the landing area (another blind one from the tee) to learn that the two marshals were still looking for my ball. It had gone through the fairway and into the deep rough where I needed a slicing 9-iron over and around a tree to a hole cut in the far back of the green. I could have pitched out left of the green, but I really felt I could pull the shot off. The ball came out higher and further right, hitting a branch hard and dropping down beneath the trees. I again tried to thread a chipping 8-iron under the tree and over the front bunker, but the shot was a foot too high and hit another branch dropping down 50 yards short of the flag. After a good pitch, I had another 8 foot downhill putt which I again misjudged and left short.
I nearly birdied the difficult par 3 15th hole after a nice 5-iron and a miss-read the 15-foot putt. The par 4 16th was playing into the wind with the fairway ending 297 yards off the tee. I threaded the drive down the middle only to find the ball rolled 2 inches into the rough with an into-the-grain lie that was wet after a little sprinkle. With 130 yards to the flag, Cliff and I agreed on a -7 cutting 9-iron. I was shocked to see the ball knuckle out of the lie and fly 20 yards past the flag to the back fringe. I then misread two putts in a row and made another bogey. I capped off the round with bogey on 18 when my 5-iron approach from the short wet rough squirted right of the green. I had shot 6 over par on the back nine and missed qualifying by two shots.
Looking back on that final nine, I had hit 10 really good shots and 5 or 6 marginal ones. That’s pretty good, usually resulting in a couple under par for me, but not 6 over! After reflecting on what I can learn from the experience, I am drawn even more than ever to the conclusion shared at the start of this article that golf isn’t about connecting the dots and hitting quality shots like we Americans tend to think. Instead, it’s a lot more about the judgment of the lies, controlling the distance and trajectories of the shots and making the right plays. This experience will lead me to alter my practice significantly over the next two weeks. I will spend more time on the course and less time on the practice range. I will work on controlling the distance and trajectories of shots and making the right plays to put myself in position for more birdies and eagles. I am reminded of what Tom Lehman shared with me about five years ago when he had a great start to the year on the PGA Tour. He told me that he stopped hitting range balls and played two balls on the course every day for two weeks, scoring each ball. I will take this difficult but valuable learning experience with me to the TPC Twin Cities for the next Champions Tour tournament (which my 5th place finish at Pebble Beach qualified me for, otherwise I would have been about 5th alternate).
I want to thank those of you who follow me and support me on Tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed these insights and updates. Stay tuned to hear how this revision in my approach to practice and play impacts my performance in the coming weeks!