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Win in the States to Win Majors

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the European Tour's Expansion

Posted Oct 19, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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One imagined a lot of head-nodding and even some internal cheering at European Tour headquarters last week.  Official delight would have been prompted by the gentle lecture to European players from a most unlikely source prior to the Portugal Masters at Villamoura, about the growing attraction of playing in the US.

Fresh from a splendid contribution to Europe's triumph in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, Miguel Angel Jiminez saw fit to warn his colleagues "not to throw stones at your own house."  It coincided with the decision of the Tour's players' committee to extend the qualification for membership to 13 events, starting next year.   

The committee, of which Jimenez is a member, also voted that three of those 13 events must be on European terrain. The Spaniard's view was: "It should not be a pain for any player to play three tournaments on the main Tour here in Europe."  And, of course, he was perfectly correct.  Except that one could perceive more than a little hint of criticism about the tendency of European players to ply their craft increasingly in the New World.  

I believe the emphasis should be more on a balanced approach, because there is no doubting the huge contribution that tournament experience in the US as made to the European game.  One need only look back to Tony Jacklin, whose victory in the 1970 US Open at Hazeltine, left him as the only European to have achieved that particular distinction until Graeme McDowell captured the title at Pebble Beach, 40 years later, last June.

By way of explaining this lengthy passage of time, Jacklin suggested: "Until relatively recently, there weren't many who went over to the States and played full time there, like I did in the sixties."  He went on: "Sure, we've had some great, world-class European players, but generally they chose to stay on their home patch with excursions to the States limited to only a few weeks before the majors. The different nature of the courses, the way they're set up and the general standard of play over there, was bound to make it more difficult for those players making the odd raid, than it was for me.

"When I went to Hazeltine in 1970, the US was my circuit. My success in the Jacksonville Open in 1968 had enabled me to take the heat of winning the Open Championship at Royal Lytham the following year.  And in many respects, the Open set me up to win the US Open, certainly where handling the pressure was concerned.  At the end of the day, pressure is what we're talking about here.  At the level of a major championship, golf is very much a mind game and ultimately, it comes down to whether you can cope with the heat."

In this context, there is a widely-held belief that for a European to have the self-belief of a prospective major champion, he must first beat the Americans on their own patch.  There is compelling evidence to support this thesis.  For instance, since the Australian, Kel Nagle, won the Centenary Open at St Andrews in 1960, Paul Lawrie has been the only home-grown winner of the title who hadn't first won in the US.

 This was true of Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo.  It was also true of Padraig Harrington who, two years before his breakthrough at Carnoustie in 2007, captured both the Honda Classic and the Barclay's Tournament on the US PGA Tour.  As I say, Lawrie was the lone exception and his achievement can be explained to some degree by the remarkable nature of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, where conditions were the most brutal in living memory.

It is to be expected that Jiminez and his colleagues on the players' committee would be anxious to support their own tour.  But they shouldn't attempt to do so at the expense of opportunities for their members in the US, which still provides the toughest competition in world golf.  Just as it did 40 years ago, to the considerable benefit of Tony Jacklin.  

Victory in the US tends to make peaks on this side of the Atlantic that bit easier to ascend.  And Europeans will lose sight of this competitive truth at their peril.

- Dermot Gilleece

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