Euro stars shine on top of the world
Published 25/01/2011 | 05:00
TIGER WOODS and Phil Mickelson tee it up at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines this week but you'll have to wait until next week's Qatar Masters to see the world No 1 and No 2 in action.
If you'd said that a couple of years back, the men in white coats would have come knocking at your door.
Yet there they are, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the pride of Europe, sitting on top of the world rankings, not to mention Graeme McDowell in fourth, Rory McIlroy seventh, Paul Casey ninth, Luke Donald 10th and Ian Poulter 12th.
It's tragic that Woods, now third in the world, had to wound his family and himself so badly for equilibrium to be restored in global golf. Yet now that it is, the outlook for the game could hardly be better, especially in Europe. No doubt Tigermania helped grow the sport to unprecedented levels financially and spread the gospel of golf to people and places it had never touched before.
For nigh on 12 years, however, having Woods as a near-irresistible force in the Majors and an immovable object at the top of the world rankings infected an entire generation, the majority of them Americans, with what Ernie Els once described as "Tigeritis".
There are many reasons why Europeans currently dominate the world's top 10 and were first to fill the vacuum left by Woods at the top. European Tour members have long benefited from the breadth of experience to be gained from competing in a vast array of different countries and conditions.
Others point to the prevalence of stroke play in the US Collegiate system, which encourages coaches and, by extension their players, to settle for the safety-first option of a 'good placing' rather than going 'all-or-bust' for victory. Meanwhile, the vast amounts of money to be earned from not winning on the megabuck US Tour made it a lot easier for those who grew up in Tiger's shadow to become used to playing for second place.
For natural-born winners, look no further than guys like Westwood, Kaymer and McDowell. And McIlroy?
Inevitably, the jury's still out on the 21-year-old, although he is the most naturally gifted and exciting young player on the world stage right now. When he's hot, McIlroy's unstoppable. When he's not, he staggers under the weight of unfair expectation.
For example, your correspondent was among those who dared wonder last Sunday if Rory might defy impossible odds and throw a spoke in Kaymer's wheel when they played together at the climax to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The German was five ahead going into that last round, for goodness sake, and a shoo-in for his third victory in four years on a course he can virtually call his own. A couple of early bogeys left McIlroy with only second place to play for, however, as Kaymer delivered a Sunday afternoon shut-out redolent of Tiger in his pomp with a sweet 66.
It's tempting to compare Kaymer to compatriot Michael Schumacher, but though he's as imperious on the golf course as Schumacher was on the race track, the 26-year-old Kaymer marries humility with trademark German frankness.
So when he was asked on Saturday evening if he was surprised McIlroy has not won more tournaments, Kaymer said: "Yes, I am very, very surprised. When I came on Tour I was 21. I learned a lot about myself. The last five years travelling on Tour, working with different people, dealing with the media, have helped me to mature as a professional golfer.
"I don't want to say Rory's not mature. In fact, I think he's very mature for his age. But I think just that little bit extra is missing at the moment. But, you know, if you give him a couple more years on Tour, especially when he plays a bit more in America, his prime will come. He will be one of the best players in the world. I definitely think he will be No 1."
Kaymer's right. It's easy to forget McIlroy has been a professional for just 40 months. Though he's won 'only' twice in that time -- at Dubai in 2009 and in astounding style at Quail Hollow last summer -- the youngster will still be rated as a good bet to eclipse Woods, Westwood and even Kaymer and win The Desert Classic the week after next.
Yet last Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, the ever-candid McIlroy gave us some inkling of the steep learning curve even the most talented must negotiate as they make their way on Tour.
McIlroy's circumstances are much changed in 2011. He's relinquished his US Tour card; he and girlfriend Holly Sweeney have parted and, despite losing a stone, a new and intensive weight-training regime is rapidly turning boy-wonder into an angular, powerfully built man. Yet the greatest transformation is psychological.
"I expect a lot this year," he said. "Though really the one goal I've set myself is simply to work hard. If I can do that I'll be happy, because there were times last year where I didn't feel I gave it 100pc. As a professional sportsman, you can't do that. I'm talking about teeing off on a Sunday morning at nine, when you don't really have a chance to win. Sometimes I found it hard to get motivated in those circumstances and didn't give it my all.
"So you set a goal every day and try to achieve that," added McIlroy, who lived up fully to that principle on Sunday as Kaymer loped out of reach, knuckling down to the task of consolidating second place with a hard-working 69.
On a similar tack, how interesting on Sunday evening to hear third-placed Graeme McDowell, Major champion and Ryder Cup hero, commit himself to improving weak points in his game and his psyche this year.
McDowell explained his putting suffered at the weekend in Abu Dhabi because: "I wanted it too much and started to force the issue. I can sometimes show impatience if a course is there for the taking or when I'm playing very well. It's something I have to learn to control."
It's refreshing when guys like McIlroy and McDowell find it so hard to compromise or settle for second best.
Maybe that's the European way!