DARREN CLARKE just had to laugh when one particular question was put to him in the build-up to this week's USPGA Championship in Atlanta.
“Do you think we might see another American win a major in our lifetime?” a reporter asked the Open champion. It was only Augusta in April last year that Phil Mickelson beat Lee Westwood down the stretch, but it feels so much longer.
Six successive majors with non- Americans – Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Clarke – coming out on top has not happened since The Masters began in 1934.
There are also, of course, four Europeans – Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Kaymer and McIlroy – at the top of the world rankings and Europe holds the Ryder Cup. But Clarke, 43 this Sunday, is too old and too wise to be lulled into thinking United States golf is in terminal decline. And he does not rule out a speedy return to form by Tiger Woods, only 37th out of 76 on his return from a 12- week injury lay-off in Akron last week. “I think the PGA Tour has given the non-American players a huge opportunity to come over and play,” said the Ulsterman.
“Consequently, they have become more comfortable over here and the whole game has opened up now. “You look at the field this week. How many international players have we got?” The answer is 69 in the field of 156. “The European Tour, of which I'm proud to be a member, has got some fantastic players and there are great players dotted all around the world.
“But, in saying that, you still have the likes of Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and the other young guns coming through over here. “I'm sure it's cyclical and Americans will start winning again very, very soon. “But at the moment it's a wonderful time for the European Tour.”
On Woods, with whom he played the first two rounds at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Clarke stated: “I thought his game was pretty good – albeit I was chopping out of the trees an awful lot, so I didn't get to see it up close that much. “I thought he hit an awful lot of really, really good golf shots and to come back after a long lay-off, you can practise as much as you want, but until you actually put yourself back into a competitive arena it's totally different. “He got last week under his belt and I'm sure this week, if Tiger plays the golf he can, I have no doubt he can be in contention.”
World number one Donald, however, does not expect Woods to be a factor come Sunday in the last major of the season. “It's very difficult to come off a layoff from injury,” he said. “When I injured my wrist (in 2008), getting back into competition was completely different to hitting balls on the range. “You can feel very comfortable on the range and getting back into that competitive mode is tough.
“It might take a little bit of time. From what I heard, he found a lot of positives in his game, but obviously it is not where he wanted to be. “He wanted to win that tournament – that was his goal. “So it would surprise me if he went on and won in the next couple of weeks.”