Monday 20 November 2017

World turns on the top dogs

Eamonn Sweeney

Thirty years ago at Walton Heath, the United States fielded the finest team ever to take part in the Ryder Cup. The side which defeated Europe 18 and a half to 9 and a half included Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd and Hale Irwin and its members eventually amassed 36 Majors between them. In comparison, all European golfers in the last 60 years have won a total of 28.

That team proved the truth of Ben Hogan's famous boast when he introduced the 1967 US side, "Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest golfers in the world, the US Ryder Cup team." The Yanks won that one by 23 and a half points to eight and a half points. The pre-eminence of American golf had the immutability of a natural law.

Yet Rory McIlroy's US Open victory last weekend means that all four Major titles are currently held by golfers from outside the States, McIlroy, US PGA champion Martin Kaymer from Germany, British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen from South Africa and his fellow countryman Masters champion Charl Schwartzel. This has happened once before in the history of the game, in 1994 when Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters, Ernie Els won the US Open and Nick Price won the British Open and the US PGA.

The Americans have never gone five Majors in a row without winning. Yet that record is likely to be broken at next month's British Open at Royal St Georges. Paddy Power's best placed ante-post American is Tiger Woods as a 14/1 joint third favourite. After that you have Phil Mickelson down in joint ninth at 33/1. Neither is a tempting wager unless they're allowed to take a time machine on to the course.

Long odds for American contenders are justified by the current world rankings which show a mere 10 of them in the top 30 and nobody higher than Steve Stricker at number five. When the first ever official world rankings were compiled 25 years ago there were 19 Americans in the top 30, and this during a perceived golden spell for European golf when Ballesteros, Langer and Lyle filled the top three slots. Go back ten years before that and there were eight Americans in the top ten of the unofficial rankings. They really were the greatest golfers in the world.

Their subsequent decline has rarely been more graphically illustrated than it was at the US Open. Not only did no home player rise to the challenge posed by Rory McIlroy but only two of the top ten places were filled by American golfers. Go back 20 years and there were only two non-Americans in the top 15 when Payne Stewart won at Hazeltine. The world has been turned on its head.

It's the same in tennis. In May for the first time ever there was no American player in the top ten men's or women's rankings. (Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick have since attained the dizzy heights of numbers nine and ten). Even allowing for the fact that Serena Williams obviously belongs in the world top ten, this represents a precipitous decline for American tennis, the most striking statistic being that over the past 40 years the number of Americans in the world top 100 has declined by 75% for men and an astounding 87% for women. For those of us who remember one American starlet after another coming off an apparently endless conveyor belt, there's something shocking about the presence of a mere six of their women in the top 100. They have fallen behind not just Russia (16) but the Czech Republic (9). When Andy Roddick won the 2003 US Open, it was the fifteenth year in a row America had won a men's Grand Slam event. They haven't won a single one since. Never mind a new McEnroe, they'd take a new Jim Courier.

In athletics, a similar process seems to be taking place in the 100m. In both the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, America went 1-2-4 in the men's race. In the women's race they went 1-2-4 in 1984 and 1-2-5 four years later. And last time out? Only one American, bronze medallist Walter Dix, cracked the top six in the men's race which was dominated by West Indian athletes. In the women's race Jamaica took gold, silver and bronze. The story won't be very different in London in a year's time.

Then there's the world heavyweight boxing title, another of the sporting world's blue riband events. From 1934, when Max Baer beat Primo Carnera to 1999, when Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield, an American boxer was the generally recognised world heavyweight champ for all but the period between June 1959 and June 1960 when Sweden's Ingemar Johansson held the crown before Floyd Patterson won it back off him and business as usual recommenced. Nothing seemed to symbolise the greater toughness and nous of American sportsmen more than the heavyweight title.

Today the world champion is a Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko whose best hope of breathing some life back into a moribund division is a match with an Englishman David Haye. The Ring magazine's top 10 heavyweight rankings contain just one American, sixth-ranked contender Eddie Chambers. For anyone who remembers the glory days of the division this is as weird as if cinema audiences the world over decided to turn their back on Hollywood and watch art-house cinema from Eastern Europe instead.

At times you wonder if the American nation is suffering from something like the curse of weakness which was laid on the men of Ulster in the Táin Bó Cuailnge. Because even their very own sports are not immune to this drop in national performance levels. Take baseball. Last year's World Series MVP? Edgar Renteria of Colombia. And the year before that? Hideki Matsui from Japan. 2010 home run leader? Jose Bautista of the Dominican Republic. 2009? Albert Pujols of the Dominican Republic. In ice hockey, European players are making an impact which would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Top scorer in the season just ended? Sweden's Daniel Sedin. Captain of the Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruins? Zdeno Chara of Slovakia.

How has this imperial collapse come about? There are perhaps positive and negative factors involved. The main positive reason is a kind of sporting globalisation. A few decades back America led the world in terms of facilities and expertise. Ironically, it is the sharing of these facilities and expertise which has enabled other countries to overhaul the Americans. Many of the tennis players who have supplanted the Yanks in the world rankings are the products of US academies, while the likes of Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell all attended American colleges.

Negative factors include the general all-round unhealthiness of American society. In the 1976-1980 time period 6.5% of American children between six- and 11-year-olds were obese. By 2007-2008 this had trebled to 19.6%. The numbers of kids who can actually get off the couch to play sport is obviously dropping.

But perhaps the most interesting reason advanced for the decline comes from Patrick McEnroe, brother of the more famous John and a Grand Slam semi-finalist in his own day, who observes that: "We tend to look for the stars at the ages of eight and nine. We tend to think of who can become professionals and the kids start thinking that way."

Anyone who's interested in sport Stateside can't help but be astonished at the amount of and bizarre nature of the media coverage given to gifted kids. This is a world where websites rate players when they're still in the American equivalent of national school, where you can land a shoe contract when you're still in high school and where four years ago the normally sane Sports Illustrated ran a story on 'one of the greatest quarterback prospects ever.'

The prospect's name was David Sills. He was 11.

As Diane Pucin of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, "picking out an American prospect at age 10 sometimes means instant sponsorship money and sudden media attention that doesn't translate into accepting the intense training found elsewhere in the world." After all, if you're a star at the age of 10 why worry about making yourself better? Meanwhile, the lean and hungry Russians and Jamaicans and, on the golf course, Irishmen are passing you out.

The demise of America as top dog is perhaps the greatest change in the sporting landscape over the past 20 years. Norman Mailer even believed that the decline of White American sporting performance was one of the reasons the Bush administration declared war on Iraq. "We white men were now left with tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice hockey, skiing, soccer, golf (with the notable exception of the Tiger) as well as lacrosse, swimming and the World-Wide Wrestling Federation -- remnants of a once great and glorious centrality."

Mailer wrote that eight years ago. These days you can cross tennis and golf off the list while soccer shouldn't have been on it in the first place. Hey buddy, fancy a game of lacrosse?

backpage@independent.ie

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