Sunday 19 January 2020

Short-sighted Europeans turn the tables on America

Strokeplay has blunted the short game of many Americans, writes Dermot Gilleece

Events in Tucson last weekend tellingly illustrated the extent to which players from these islands have applied the once intimidating skills of their American rivals to the matchplay format.

Having initially been reflected in Ryder Cup success, it is now encompassing front-line matchplay tournaments, as Ross Fisher proved in the Volvo Championship in Spain last November and Ian Poulter did in winning the Accenture at Dove Mountain. Indeed it was an all-British final with Paul Casey as runner-up.

So how do we explain this? The problem and the answer are provided by two players from opposite sides of the Atlantic and from different generations.

In conversations I had with Harry Bradshaw about American dominance in Ryder Cup combat during his era, he explained: "When Britain and Ireland played at the Thunderbird Club in 1955, we held the advantage from tee to green. But within a radius of 100 yards from the stick, the Americans were supreme. No matter how the ball lay, either in sand or out of it, they went all out for the flag."

Which was why, when recalling his preparation for the 1958 Canada Cup won by himself and Christy O'Connor, The Brad talked of "long hours of practice, paying scrupulous attention to chipping and putting."

Compare this with the words of US skipper, Tom Lehman, in a post-mortem on the 2006 Ryder Cup thrashing by Europe at The K Club. "When the pressure comes on, we Americans revert to what we're comfortable with, which is strokeplay," he said. "I lost count of the times our guys would be going for it and then suddenly played like they were in the US Open. The strokeplay, 'I'm-going-to-get-my-par' mentality.

"The European team were hitting every shot at the flag and when things started going your way, those shots ended up stiff. It's tough to beat a guy who's hitting it close every time and making his share of putts." This change in American attitudes from The Brad's days could he attributed to a conservatism spawned by huge increases in prize money in recent decades.

Most of the damage they suffered in 2006 was inflicted by Europe's eight British and Irish players. Which indicated their attitudes too had changed from a time when Bradshaw, O'Connor and their British Ryder Cup colleagues were whipping boys. But to seriously positive effect.

In my view, this had much to do with the influence of Seve Ballesteros who, with extraordinary recovery shots when winning the Open Championship at Royal Lytham in 1979, emphasised the importance of a strong short game. Further emphasis came the following year at Augusta National, where he became the first European winner of the Masters, the ultimate short-game examination.

Apart from learning from him by observation, British and Irish contemporaries talked to Seve about his irrepressible skills, the money shots as Christy O'Connor Jnr described them. Indeed I remember O'Connor recounting hours of fascinating chat with the Spaniard. And from the US, there was much to be learned from the wonderful scrambling of Tom Watson.

All of this coincided with a dramatic improvement in the quality of courses on this side of the pond. Through the adoption here of American country club standards, greens were improved out of all recognition from the generally poor, bumpy surfaces which Bradshaw and O'Connor had to contend with.

As a consequence, players were drawn more towards honing their short-game skills and from a time when competitors were lionised for the distance they could smash a ball, observers began to focus increasingly on wonderful putting or precise wedge play.

Fearful of the demise of a one-sided competition, Ryder Cup organisers decided on the recommendation of Jack Nicklaus after the 1977 staging, that the team should be broadened in future to encompass continental Europeans. But have we now reached a point where a purely B and I side could again make a match of it?

Consider this line-up: P Harrington, R McIlroy, G McDowell, I Poulter, P Casey, R McGowan, R Fisher, L Westwood, S Dyson, O Wilson, L Donald and among the wild-cards, Scotland's Martin Laird, winner of the Justin Timberlake Tournament and $1.35m in prize money on the US tour last season. Who'd bet against them?

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