American golf’s effort to avoid a historic losing streak at the U.S. Open is led by a 44-year-old from Wisconsin who cries on the victory stand and spends winters hitting practice balls out of a heated trailer.
Steve Stricker, at No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is the highest-placed U.S. player coming into today’s opening round at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Tiger Woods, a three-time winner of the season’s second major championship, is on crutches with leg injuries, and Phil Mickelson, who turns 41 today, has two wins in the past 14 months.
Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are 1-2 in the world and co-favorites of Las Vegas oddsmakers with Mickelson at 12-1. Stricker is 15-1. As the field begins play about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the White House, all four of golf’s major titles are held by non-Americans, and a loss this week would mark the first time five straight majors were won by non-U.S. players.
“America right now is struggling to find its identity,” former European Tour player Frank Nobilo from New Zealand said on a media conference call yesterday. “The fact that a lot of the U.S. domination has been Tiger and Phil for the past 10 years, the youth hasn’t developed. They have big shoes to fill.”
The tournament started this morning, with Harrison Frazar, a University of Texas graduate, leading the field at 1-under after two holes.
A year ago, American players controlled the sport. Woods, who has slipped to No. 15, was still No. 1 in the world. Mickelson was the reigning Masters Tournament champion. Lucas Glover was preparing to defend his U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach and Stewart Cink had the Claret Jug as the British Open winner.
Now, South Africans hold two major titles -- Charl Schwartzel from the Masters and Louis Oosthuizen from the British Open. Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won the U.S. Open in 2010, with Martin Kaymer of Germany taking the PGA.
The slide was foreshadowed in U.S. Open results over the past decade. Since 2000, when Woods’s 15-shot win at Pebble Beach set the record for the largest margin of victory at a major championship, six of the 10 winners have come from outside the U.S.
Dustin Johnson, 26, who lost last year’s PGA Championship after a final-hole bunker penalty at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits and the U.S. Open after holding a three-shot lead coming into the final round at Pebble Beach, had to be told about the major slump he and his fellow Americans are in.
“The only reason I know is because I think about three different people have asked me,” he said during a pre-tournament press conference this week. “But I had no idea. It’s not like we’re not trying.”
They’re not trying hard enough, according to 1973 U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller, now a golf analyst for Comcast Corp.’s NBC.
“We’ve got of case of Top Ten-itis,” Miller, 64, said on a conference call. “They think when you win it’s like a fluke. I wish guys were a little more expectant on winning instead of just trying to have a good finish. We just don’t seem to have that many confident, cocky players.”
Woods stared down opponents as he won 14 major championships. Stricker, never a major winner, cried on two occasions after his one-shot win at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, two weeks ago. He shed tears after winning the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles on Feb. 7.
While world rankings and recent history points to golf’s European domination, not everybody is ready to give up on U.S. players, including Mickelson, the last American to win a major at the 2010 Masters.
“Although international golf has really taken off, American golf is still in very good shape,” he said in a press conference two days ago. “We have a plethora of great players coming up.”
Golf’s global growth has led to recent discussion among players and officials about a possible world tour, Kaymer said.
“Eventually it will come,” Kaymer, the No. 3-ranked player in the world, said in a June 6 interview at Atlanta Athletic Club, site of this year’s PGA Championship in August.
Such plans would only occur if agreements between the U.S., European and Asian professional tours can be reached, something that would likely take years to achieve.
“If they get along and if they find a way to sit down maybe at one table with the Asian guys and maybe the guys from Dubai, then I think they can do something huge,” Kaymer said.
For now, the attention remains focused on Congressional, where players are contending with a 7,574-yard, par-71 course that has been slightly modified since 1997, when South Africa’s Ernie Els captured his second U.S. Open title.
While Americans are struggling for major wins, staging the tournament at an 87-year-old club that has been the home course of U.S. presidents and served as a training ground for U.S. spies during World War II is fitting.
“Playing the U.S. Open in the nation’s capital, I think that’s why it’s special,” said Els. “It’s a unique venue.”