American empire to strike back at euro menace in 2011
GRAEME McDOWELL listed at a career-high World No 5; Lee Westwood still firmly ensconced at No 1 and seven Europeans riding high in the top 11. The first official rankings of 2011, issued yesterday, strongly suggest an increasingly prosperous New Year for professional golf on this side of the Atlantic.
European Tour members enjoyed unprecedented success in the Majors in 2010, when McDowell, Germany's World No 3 Martin Kaymer and South African Louis Oosthuizen won three of their sport's most prestigious titles.
And as Westwood filled second place at the Masters in Augusta and the Open at St Andrews, clocking up his fourth top-three finish in his last five appearances at the Majors, it seems only a matter of time before the Englishman etches his name onto one of those trophies.
However, one cannot reasonably expect Europe's domination to continue in golf's Grand Slam arena in 2011.
The American empire seems most likely to strike back through Phil Mickelson, if fit, at Augusta; Tiger Woods at Congressional and Dustin Johnson, perhaps, at the US PGA in Atlanta.
Golf fans should brace themselves for a gripping global conflict at the Majors.
April 7-10, Augusta National
(7,435 yards, Par 72)
TIGER WOODS and Phil Mickelson were only the warm-up act as they engaged in a swashbuckling battle early on Sunday at the 2009 Masters.
Angel Cabrera beat Kenny Perry on the second hole of sudden death to claim the Green Jacket later that afternoon ... but many walked away hoping Mickelson and Tiger would one day go head-to-head for victory at the Masters.
Their wish could soon be granted.
As Tiger's travails threw the race for Major titles wide open in 2010, the thrilling way in which Mickelson sealed his third Green Jacket with a final-round 67 last April firmly established 'Lefty' as the new Master of Augusta.
However, by finishing tied fourth there in 2010, a remarkable effort considering his five-month exile from golf, four-time Masters champion Woods once again showed he was born to play this golf course.
Later in 2010, Mickelson would be stymied by the onset of an arthritic condition which he insists is now under control.
With respect to Westwood, who led going into Masters Sunday but finished three strokes behind in second after a closing 71, Mickelson and Woods, on form, are head and shoulders above the rest at Augusta.
The swashbuckling six-iron Mickelson hit off the pine straw, between two trees and over Rae's Creek to within five feet of the pin at 13 in the final round was Shot of the Year, while his majestic short game shines best at Augusta.
US Open Champion McDowell and his gifted young chum Rory McIlroy are not yet well enough equipped in the short game department to beat an on-song Mickelson (or Woods) at Augusta.
June 17-19, Congressional
(7,250 yards, Par 70)
DID his victory over Woods at last month's Chevron World Challenge offer McDowell a taste of things to come at golf's Majors?
The 31-year-old Northern Irishman emerged from an attritional Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach last June with the US Open trophy in his grasp and the title of 'Toughest Grinder in Golf' on his CV.
Who knows what this year will bring for McDowell as he shoulders the weight of expectation generated by his phenomenal achievements in 2010. It'll be tough but he's well equipped for the challenge.
That MBE McDowell now has after his name might just as easily stand for 'Mentally Built to Endure'. Highly intelligent and hard as basalt, he's ideally suited to the erosive environment of the US Open.
Tiger, winner of the 2009 AT&T National at Congressional, will be favourite to rack up his 15th Major title there next June.
Knowing Woods, he'd probably like nothing better than to stare across that first tee on Sunday at the US Open and see McDowell standing there ... yet, rest assured, the Ulsterman would like nothing better either.
On the form he showed in victory at Quail Hollow last May, McIlroy is capable of making his Major breakthrough in Maryland. Yet the youngster needs to be in the mood to regain such heights. A more substantial challenge should be offered by PGA Champion Kaymer or Jim Furyk, the 2003 US Open winner. Furyk tied fifth behind winner Ernie Els on his national championship's most recent visit to Congressional in 1997.
July 14-17, Royal St George's
(7,204 yards, Par 71)
ANYTHING can happen at Royal St George's ... and usually does.
It's the place where Harry Bradshaw's ball wound up in a broken beer bottle by the side of the fifth fairway on Friday at the 1949 Open.
The popular Wicklow man unwisely decided to risk playing it as it lay, racking up a six which effectively cost him his chance of victory -- Bradshaw was beaten to the title by Bobby Locke in a play-off.
On the Open's most recent visit to Sandwich in 2003, 'unknown' American Ben Curtis became one of the least likely champions in Major history, when Thomas Bjorn surrendered a three-stroke lead and the Claret Jug on Sunday. Unforgettably, the faltering Dane took three to get out of a greenside bunker at the short 16th that afternoon.
On a good week, Padraig Harrington has both the game and the nous to prevail there. After victories at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale, the Dubliner certainly is vastly more accomplished than in 2003, when he finished in a distant tie for 22nd place at Sandwich.
However, Westwood and Ian Poulter are likely to contend strongly for a first Major title in Kent, while Portrush native McDowell can be fancied whenever the going gets tough.
US PGA Championship
August 11-14, Atlanta Athletic Club
(7,485 yards, Par 70)
IF the first Major of each season is played on the course Bobby Jones built in Augusta, this year's final Grand Slam event takes place at his home club. Atlanta Athletic Club was founded in 1898 and is proud of its ranking, alongside Augusta National and Congressional, among the most prestigious clubs in the US today.
Jones honed his game at East Lake, while his alma mater moved to its current location at John's Creek in the late 1960s, where the Highlands Course would soon be regarded as the finest of the two designed for the club by Robert Trent Jones.
A letter from Jones, written weeks before his death in 1971, prompted the USGA to play the US Open there in 1976, when Jerry Pate, just 22, registered a sensational first win on Tour.
Twice before, the US PGA has visited this course twice -- Larry Nelson won in 1981 and, 20 years later, David Toms pipped Mickelson by one stroke. It's a long, tough course with an especially tight back nine. Though Kaymer should make a sturdy defence of his title as he leads a strong European challenge next autumn, expect the tradition of US success to continue at John's Creek.
Perhaps it offers the immensely talented Dustin Johnson the best opportunity of atonement after his Sunday afternoon nightmares at last year's US Open at Pebble Beach and US PGA at Whistling Straits.