By Lawrence Donegan | Open Championship
Picture the scene: 1996, the practise putting green at Royal Lytham, site of that year’s Open Championship. A skinny kid knocks in six-footers as if they were nothing. The general public walks on unaware they are close to greatness but cognoscenti are gathered in the corner, transfixed and taking notes.
Behold the nascent genius of Tiger Woods. A raw and untamed amateur back then, the next great American golfer was in town and he had that aura, that trans-Atlantic sheen that all the American golfers had back then. Calcavecchia, Davis Love, Tom Lehman (who went on to win the Open that year) and others like them.
It seems daft in retrospect to think of those three as anything other than what they turned out to be (good but not great Major champions from the second tier) but it didn’t seem daft back then. Not with those accents! And the clothes! And their golf bags, big as Ford Mustangs and twice as flashy. The Yanks were over-sized and over here. From Texas to Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
That aura of greatness is gone
The Yanks are here again for the Open this year, all 50 of them, but the aura is gone. Tiger (10/1) and Phil (18/1) still turn heads of course but that’s because of their talent not their nationality. As for the rest, they will walk through the streets of Gullane and North Berwick unnoticed, if not anonymous, then certainly ungarlanded.
Golf is a global game these days, bigger and bolder than ever. It’s just the Americans who have shrunk – from Supermen to the Clark Kents of the driving range.
What caused this diminution of the great American golfer?
Look no further than the PGA Tour, which now offers riches beyond the dreams of any golfer.
Finish in the Top 100 of the PGA Tour money list this season and you will make $1 million – nice money if you can get it, but it’s also proof that that mediocrity brings its own substantial rewards. You no longer need to be great to thrive on the American circuit.
And you no longer need to be an American. This wasn’t the case in the days when the PGA Tour was all but a closed shop, with even the greatest players from elsewhere in world, like Seve Ballesteros, being denied the opportunity to play in the States.
Locals pushed out by foreign gems
To its credit the PGA Tour these days has embraced players from elsewhere. Witness PGA commissioner Tim Finchem’s long (and eventually successful) courtship of Rory McIlroy, as well as a smattering of promising Asians like Ryo Ishikawa. But as players from overseas flood in, the locals are being pushed out.
The US Tour is a miniature United Nations these days and it is a better place for embracing such diversity. But American golf and American golfers have suffered and so, too, has the Open Championship. Sure, the stars are all here this week but there is a sadness that the American stars no longer shine as bright as they once did.
If you’re looking for star power then look elsewhere, to the likes of Rory McIlroy (28/1). The Irishman is out-of-sorts with his game but he has those superstar qualities. Never mind Holywood, the World No2 could turn heads in Hollywood. The same goes for Adam Scott (25/1), the freshly-minted Masters champion, and Ernie Els (33/1), who has been around the block a few times but still retains a presence that fills every room he enters.
Dustin Johnson (45/1), a colossus of a man, has a touch of Els about him but he hasn’t proved himself on the Major championship stage. As for Brandt Snedeker (45/1), the other great modern-day American hope – give me a break. He’s a fine player and a fine fellow but, let’s face it, he’s the James Blunt of the PGA Tour. As bland as rice pudding.
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Lawrence Donegan is the Guardian’s former golf correspondent and has attended the last 15 Opens. He is the author of several acclaimed books which includes Four Iron in the Soul, based on his experiences caddying for tour pro Ross Drummond. In the 1980s he was a pop star, but we forgive him for that. Follow him on Twitter here.