Friday, 22 July 2011

Northern Ireland Reigns Supreme as America Declines

Having been away in London last week, I never got the opportunity to comment on Darren Clarke's brilliant and emotional Open victory on Sunday.

I was watching the latter stages in Shepherds Bush and was absolutely overjoyed  to see the oldest winner in over 40 years, lift the Claret Jug.

It was a sensational victory for a man who has really gone off the boil in the Majors of golf for a good decade or so now. The loss of his wife Heather to breast cancer before the 2006 Ryder Cup also remained in the memory as his heroics for team Europe then were eclipsed by his own personal triumph this week.

Northern Ireland - The Home of Golf?!
It also adds to what is quickly becoming a legendary run of form for the golfers of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's Finest - McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke
Clarke's Open win was the first for a Brit this century. The last was Paul Lawrie in 1999. He however was Scottish and you have to go back to 1992 for the last Englishman to win - Nick Faldo.

Before Graeme McDowell won the US Open last year, he was the first man from Northern Ireland to win a major of any kind since Fred Daly won The Open back in 1947. Yet now, 3 of the last 6 winners are all from that corner of the Emerald Isle. What is more extraordinary is that they have not all been won by one individual but by 3 - McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke.

It is in sporting, historic terms, an extraorindary feat for such a small nation that will probably never be repeated.

But if you go back just a few years and include Padraig Harrington's 3 major wins for the Republic of Ireland back in 2007/08, then 6 of the last 17 majors have been won by players from the island of Ireland!

An American Decline
This has all come along at a time which has seen a welcome renaissance in European golf.

The current world rankings shows Europeans in the top 4 with Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood leading German Martin Kaymer and McIlory. Graeme McDowell currently stands in 11th with Englishmen Paul Casey and Ian Poulter not far behind in 15th and 16th. That's 6 Brits and 7 Europeans inside the World's Top 16. A far cry from the American domination of recent years (Tiger Woods' fall to No.20 a clear sign of this).

South Africa have also seen a renaissance of their own. Under the watchful eye of old hand Ernie Els, a new legion of South African stars have stepped out of his, Reteif Goosen and Gary Players shadows. Gary Players 9th and final major victory was in 1978 and a lean spell followed until Ernie Els won the first of his 3 majors to-date in 1994. Between then and 2004, he and Goosen won between them, 4 US Open titles and an Open title also. After a hiatus, they are striking back with victories for Trevor Immelman in the 2008 US Masters and wins in the last 12 months for Louis Oosthuizen at the 2010 Open and Charl Schwartzel at at the 2011 US Masters.

In all, 5 of the last 6 majors have been won by players from either Northern Ireland or South Africa. The 6th, the 2010 US PGA Championship, was won by the German Martin Kaymer.

It is therefore the first time in 100 years, since America have gone 6 golfing majors without a victory. In historic terms, what we are currently experiencing is a golfing famine for the most illustrious country in the history of the game. Their last major winner was Phil Mickelson who won the 4th of his majors to-date at the 2010 US Masters.

Indeed, the upcoming US PGA Championship will make for intriguing viewing. Because it America fails to win in a 7th consective major, it will only be the second year since 1910 that America will have gone through an entire calendar year without winning a major (the other being in 1994). Whatever happens between August 11th-14th at the Atlanta Athletic Club, the American run of having failed to win any of the last 3 US PGA Championships (Harrington in '08, Yang Yong-eun in '09 and Kaymer in '10) is its worst in the history of this most American dominant of golfing majors.

Indeed, looking comparably at the other majors, their worst run in the US Masters was in failing to win it in 4 consecutive years between 1988-1991 (Lyle, Faldo, Faldo and Woosnam). Since 1910, the same 4 year drought struck the Americans in the US Open only recently between 2004-2007 (Goosen, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Angel Cabrera). Of all of the majors, it is unsurprisingly, the only non-American based Open which has provided them with the most difficulty of the years. Between 1946-1969, there were only 6 American winners (Sam Snead '46, Ben Hogan '53, Arnold Palmer '61 & '62, Tony Lema '64 and Jack Nicklaus '66). Another American black patch was struck between 1984-1994 when the only winner in 1989 was Mark Calcavecchia. Another won is running at present with only one winner in the last 5 (Stewart Cink in 2009).

So whilst they've had their black patches before, looking at this list of golfing major winners shows that the current patch is arguably as bad in the round as any that has gone before.

But whilst the Americans may look ponderously at a bleak recent record at a sport in which it has excelled over the years, as an European but as a Brit in particular, it is a time to rejoice. But most particularly, if you come from that Northern Irish part of the union!

If it isn't asking too much, more of the same please!

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