Monday 27 March 2017

Young guns lead way as Europeans eclipse USA

Martin Kaymer is up to sixth in the world rankings after his victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship Photo: Getty Images
Martin Kaymer is up to sixth in the world rankings after his victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship Photo: Getty Images

MARTIN KAYMER has never met Michael Schumacher and, judging by the titanium plate and screws the youngster still has in his foot following his go-karting accident last summer, he's lucky he chose to make his living in golf and not behind the wheel.

Yet there was more than a hint of Schumacher's famously competitive nature as Kaymer beat Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy to the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi on Sunday surging to No 6 in the world in the process.

Kaymer and, for that matter, McIlroy or Italy's magnificent Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, are the trailblazers for a new, hugely talented and super-confident generation of European golfers.

The balance of power in golf has been shifting inexorably away from the United States to Europe in the new century and players like Kaymer, a five-times Tour-winner at the age of 24, will accelerate this process.

In fairness, Asia (Ryo Ishikawa) and South Africa (Charl Schwartzel) are also breeding winners. While there's no shortage of talent in the US, their finest young players are being left behind in the professional arena.

McIlroy suggests that this might have something to do with the strength of the collegiate golf system in the US, where young, gifted golfers enjoy the privilege of a college education into their early 20s; meanwhile, their counterparts from other countries are learning their craft in the school of hard knocks -- on the world's tours.

Graeme McDowell believes that the current strength of European golf is founded on the willingness of its players to travel the globe, learning how to cope with and play in a wide variety of different environments.

Satisfying

Take Irish Open champion Shane Lowry's upcoming schedule, for example. Determined to play as much as he can this year as he learns the ropes, the Clara man follows up on his hugely satisfying fourth place in Abu Dhabi by playing this week at the Qatar Masters, followed by the Dubai Desert Classic next week, then the Avantha Masters in New Delhi.

Since turning pro after his sensational victory at Baltray eight months ago, Lowry (22) has travelled the world, learning not only how to adapt to ever-changing conditions on the golf course but how to cope with the harsh, lonely realities of life on the road.

It was edifying last weekend in Abu Dhabi to see how well Lowry has adapted to his new environment. Long past are those self-conscious early days on Tour last summer.

Just how well he's settled was evident in his swing, which in Abu Dhabi was long (though not overly so), languid and as smooth as I've seen it. Also impressive was the certainty of his putting on greens which others found difficult to read.

This performance propels Lowry into the world's top 100. He overtakes Darren Clarke to become Ireland's fourth-highest ranked player behind Padraig Harrington (seventh), McIlroy (11th) and McDowell (40th last week, but whose current position has yet to be confirmed following yesterday's Bob Hope Classic).

"Shane shooting 17-under and taking fourth place by himself was brilliant," McIlroy enthused. Insisting that Lowry was no different from anyone else in needing several months to feel he belonged on Tour, McIlroy went on: "It took me six months to feel comfortable out here after I got my card.

"It's just great to see Shane doing so well. I'm really happy for him. I'm sure one of his big goals will be to get into the top 60 in the Order of Merit this season and go to Dubai next November. If he keeps playing the way he is, he'll do it easily."

With Kaymer at No 6 and Poulter up to No 10, McIlroy drops to No 11. So, in all, there are still six Europeans in the top 10, against four Americans.

One has come to expect stronger fields and therefore more ranking points on offer at tournaments on the European Tour's 'Desert Swing' each January. Five of the world's top 10 played in Abu Dhabi, for example, while the highest-ranked player at the Bob Hope in the States was World No 37 Mike Weir.

At least 18 of the game's top 50 will see action at this week's Qatar Masters (McIlroy, like Clarke, takes the week off, undertaking a series of promotional engagements in Abu Dhabi and Dubai instead) -- nearly twice as many as at Torrey Pines in San Diego. After rising US star Anthony Kim's controversial decision to turn his back on the Bob Hope, regarded as his local tournament, to play in Abu Dhabi, one of American golf's elder statesmen, Kenny Perry, follows the lure of 'Arab gold' to Doha this week.

Yet, contrary to the argument offered by our American cousins, Europe's ever-flourishing representation in the upper reaches of the world rankings is neither seasonal nor as a result of a 'skewed' points system.

Indeed, with the vast majority of ranking points on offer at tournaments in the US each year -- three each of the Majors and World Golf Championships are played there -- a massive advantage should be enjoyed by the 'home' team.

Yet the facts say otherwise. When the current world ranking system first came into effect in 1986, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle filled the top three positions, yet the States dominated the top 50 with a total of 31 players against Europe's eight.

The ratio stayed roughly the same in America's favour until 2005, when the number of US players in the top 50 began to drop dramatically, from 29 in January 2000 to 20 six years later and 15 in 2007, when Europe claimed parity for the first time.

With 16 players in the top 50 in January 2009, Europe led the US by three, and they still held the same advantage last week (19-16), though their representation among the game's elite continues to grow.

In a neat reversal of the position in '86, the current top three are Americans -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker (with Jim Furyk in fifth) -- while Europe has the upper hand overall, and is producing enough talent to tip the scale even further.

Challenging the US argument that the rankings are skewed in Europe's favour, McDowell says: "You put Martin Kaymer beside Sean O'Hair or Rory McIlroy beside Anthony Kim and tell me we're not better than them.

"Our young players are better than theirs. If the European players in the top 50 concentrated solely on Europe and didn't play in America apart from the Majors and World Championships, we'd have even more in the top 50.

"They argue that the world rankings are skewed in our favour, but the biggest difference for us is we travel. Our best players have always travelled all over the world playing golf and that's something they don't do."

So great is Europe's pool of talent, McDowell believes Kaymer's win is just the first in a really big year.

"There's too many good European players for it not to be," he said. "There's also (Henrik) Stenson, (Robert) Karlsson, McIlroy, (Lee) Westwood, (Paul) Casey, Poulter, (Ross) Fisher ... the list is unbelievable.

"I think they're going to be unbeatable this year, Europe. I just want to be part of it."

Yet for Ryder Cup stalwarts like Clarke and Paul McGinley, winning a place on Monty's team at Celtic Manor is getting ever more difficult. The European Tour bus is pulling away and they are going to have to run faster than ever before to catch it.

Irish Independent

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