WHEN the Irish Open tees off at Killarney on Thursday, one man knows more than most that the standard and strength in depth of golf on the European Tour has never been higher.
Bruce Critchley echoed the words of the old British Prime Minister Harold McMillan when he said: “You’ve never had it so good.”
Critchley should know. As Sky Sports’ voice of golf for nearly 20 years, he has seen it all, and the biggest change he has witnessed in that time is the rise of Europe, at the same time as the demise of the USA.
Louis Oosthuizen’s Open victory at St Andrews last week, followed by the South African’s admission that he wants to remain on the European Tour, comes hot on the heels of Graeme McDowell’s magnificent win at the US Open in Pebble Beach last month.
And with the first six places filled by European Tour players at St Andrews, the days of US dominance may be over, and Europe will go into October’s Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales as clear favourites.
Yet Critchley remembers a time when it was very different.
When I asked him for the biggest change he had seen in the past 25 years, he did not hesitate.
“Clearly the emergence of Europe as a major force against the Americans has been a huge change. It all started way back when Tony Jacklin led Europe to the Ryder Cup in 1985, the first time the Americans had lost in almost 30 years, and made it winnable again. He only had five good players in his side but it was fun to watch.
“Even 10 years later, I remember Colin Montgomerie saying we’ve got to win it now or we will never do it again, yet we have won five to America’s two victories since then.”
And Critchley knows how different it was once upon a time: “I remember the one-sided batterings we used to get from the Americans – that is how old I am!
“But with European success on the US tour and in the majors, the pendulum has sung more than at any other time in my lifetime.”
Why does he think this is so? “The paucity of the challenge on the American tour is a big reason. As long as you drive long and straight, you will be alright. There is no real variety or true challenge, unlike the European Tour, where you need to use every club in the bag.
“It is robotic. US sport is dominated by stats, and sometimes I think American golfers would like nothing more than to play the same courses 50 times a year.
“I think the US tour has been kept going by Tiger Woods, like it was with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the 1970s and 80s.
“But that is a double-edged sword, because those players were so dominant that they put the fear of God into their opponents. Our players are not so intimidated, maybe because they do not see the likes of Tiger up close so often.
“And don’t forget our guys have worked hard to get where they are. The strength in depth of the European Tour is such that we have 24 good players vying for 12 places in Monty’s Ryder Cup squad.”
It is a far cry from the days when one injured or out-of-form star put the whole team’s preparations in turmoil.
“I remember the doom and gloom years ago when we thought Ian Woosnam was out of form and Jose Maria Olazabal was injured – it was almost like we had no chance. Yet now, you have terrific players like Pádraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia not guaranteed a place and in danger of missing out, but we will still be able to put out a world-class team.”
He looks back on the inspirational effects of Seve Ballesteros and particularly Nick Faldo, whose academies and junior programmes did so much to encourage young players.
“Faldo has left a real legacy in that regard, showing future generations that the Americans were beatable on their own turf. Now there’s another generation, and Rory McIlroy is probably the best of a good-looking bunch. People think back to that second day at St Andrews, when he shot 80 after his brilliant 63 on the opening day, and wonder what might have been. What I hope he does not do is worry about that round and start trying to change his game – he is a very gifted player, the finished article.
“He just needs to find that mental toughness to survive a day like that – it is not a swing thing, it’s a mind thing.
“He has not yet got the game to cope with adversity like that, but it will come with age – a more experienced player might have ended with a 74 rather than 80, and then still have been in real contention going into the last round.
“He should focus on the 62 he shot at the Quail Hollow Championship in the US to win his first US tour event, in May – you can’t play better than he did that day. He has a lot of time on his side and is a really exciting talent.”
And Critchley sees so many more good players this side of the Atlantic.
“The top six at St Andrews were all European Tour players, with Lee Westwood having had four podium finishes in the past five majors, so he is in danger of being another nearly man, like Greg Norman was a generation ago.
“Graeme McDowell had a fantastic result in winning the US Open, and the way he handled the final day was superb.
“It was there to be lost, but he kept composed and did enough to hold on. There are many horse racing analogies in golf, and this was a case of getting into the lead and waiting for the others to fall by the wayside.”
And as he says, McDowell’s success summed up the problems with the US tour.
“So many of the players are too nice, too content to finish as also-rans. I know Tony Jacklin said he wondered about the hunger of the top young European players, but it is truer of the Americans, who can become multi-millionaires without really winning anything. They can have a gentle four days of golf and then pick up a big cheque.
“You wonder if they are all really playing to win, the way Paul Casey was when he went for it on the final round at St Andrews. He ended up in the bushes for a triple bogey at the 12th, but that was as a result of trying to win rather than settling for a place.”
One player whose will to win has never been doubted is Tiger Woods. But after his enforced breaks, first with injury and then because of his marriage problems, one wonders whether he will ever be the same, or indeed catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
“If I had to put a bet on it, I would say he will never win another major. I don’t think he is the Tiger we used to know,” says Critchley. “Nicklaus summed it up beautifully when he said that if Tiger could win at Pebble Beach or St Andrews, his two favourite courses, then he would be up and running again. But he didn’t, so what does that say about him? If he can win one major, perhaps he can win the other three he needs to catch Nicklaus. But for any player, winning four majors is one hell of an achievement, let alone someone who has been through this hiatus in his life.
“He has lost his aura of invincibility and become a ‘mortal’ putter now, and his driving has never been good enough to carry him through. I always believe you have 10 years at the top, whether it is from the age of 25 to 35, or in his case 18 onwards. He has been up there for 12 years or so and I wonder if we have now seen the best of him.
“It was great to see him set the bar so high, but I am not sure if his era has been good for the game.
“It is great to see such a spread of talent challenging now. As well as the likes of McIlroy, you have players from Japan and Korea pushing to win, to the extent I could name 50 potential winners for the Open and not picked the right man. ”
Indeed not many of us would have thought Oosthuizen would collect the Claret Jug, even after his sensational second day, which gave him a huge lead as the rest of the field was almost literally blown away.
Yet Critchley points to the fact that the young South African came out on top of equally gusty conditions. “His round of 65 in windy conditions on the Thursday at St Andrews was outstanding. He deserves huge credit for that, and the way he held his nerve on the final day.”
Ooosthuizen is another South African to follow in the footsteps of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and of course Gary Player, who have all won majors and won in America. With the rest of the world coming up fast, Critchley only sees one area where there does not seem to be a rash of bright young things emerging – continental Europe.
But other than that, the picture on the European Tour in general, and especially Britain and Ireland, has never been rosier. As Critchley says: “We have never had it so good – so bring on the Americans!”
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