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A major drought saddles Europe

It has been seven years since a European has won a Grand Slam event, despite the high quality of players. And no one is quite sure why.

By BOB HARIG
Published July 18, 2006


HOYLAKE, England - If Scotland is the original home to golf, then England likes to lay claim to having popularized the game.

While the U.K. neighbors continue to quibble, there is no arguing that neither country has done much to further national pride when it comes to the major championships.

Throw in the entire continent of Europe, and the new millennium has been a giant wasteland at the biggest tournaments in the game.

Seven years have passed since a European has won a major championship, when Scotland's Paul Lawrie defeated France's Jean Van de Velde and American Justin Leonard in a British Open playoff at Carnoustie. And many in and around golf would argue that was a fluke.

"If someone had said a Scotsman is going to win the Open in '99, I would have said thank you very much," Colin Montgomerie said.

Monty is one of just four Scots in the field but among more than a dozen or so Europeans with a realistic shot to end a curious drought in the Grand Slam events when the 135th Open Championship begins Thursday at Royal Liverpool.

There are 11 Europeans ranked among the top 30 in the world, including Spain's Sergio Garcia, England's David Howell and Luke Donald, Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal and Ireland's Padraig Harrington.

Only Olazabal has won a major, and the second of his two Masters came in 1999.

Compare that with Americans, who occupy just seven spots among the top 30, but have claimed six of the past 10. (Of course, five of them come from Nos. 1-2, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.)

"It's a bit of a conundrum at the moment," said Howell, the leading money-winner on the European tour and, at No. 10, the highest-ranked British player in the field. "British golf is great, and yet with it being so strong, we haven't got the Nick Faldo that everyone is crying out for. Our press would love to have that real big star again."

And nobody can quite figure out why it hasn't happened.

Faldo, who turns 49 today, and those of his generation did it at a time when there were fewer top players from Europe and far less access to the big tournaments.

Spain's Seve Ballesteros won five majors between 1979 and 1988. Scotland's Sandy Lyle won two, in 1985 and 1988. Germany's Bernhard Langer won the Masters in 1985 and 1993. Wales' Ian Woosnam won the 1991 Masters. Somehow, those players overcame the difficulties and prospered. Now, with more players in the mix, there is less success - although there have been some close calls.

Montgomerie was second at the U.S. Open last month, only after a double bogey at the final hole cost him a victory by one shot. Olazabal tied for third at this year's Masters. Denmark's Thomas Bjorn missed a playoff at last year's PGA Championship by one stroke.

And Montgomerie, Olazabal, Langer and Garcia all finished among the top five at last year's Open Championship.

"European golf is strong again," Harrington said. "Obviously in the '80s, early '90s it was incredibly strong. Nick Faldo would have had a tremendous influence on Luke Donald if (he was) the same age group. I think it's only a matter of time before there'll be some majors won again."

The lack of major success is even more acute if you narrow it down to England.

Since the Open was last played at Hoylake in 1967, just two Englishmen - Tony Jacklin and Faldo - have won this tournament.

Englishmen won 15 of the first 25 British Opens, but since World War II, just four from England have won the tournament - Henry Cotton in 1948, Max Faulkner in 1951, Jacklin in 1969 and Faldo in 1987, 1990 and 1992.

And this despite there being 12 players from England ranked among the top 100 in the world. Just six years ago, only Faldo and Jamie Spence were in the top 100.

Making matters worse, Faldo is the last from England to win any major, at the 1996 Masters.

"I'd love to be one of the people that Europe looked to try and win that elusive major that we haven't won for a few years," said Howell, 31, who has three victories in the past two seasons and was a big part of Europe's 2004 Ryder Cup victory.

"But I'm just barging my way into that situation. There are guys who have been around longer than me, and that burden of expectation has been on their shoulders longer than mine."

Perhaps it all changes this week. Hoylake, after all, hosted the first significant pro tournament held in England.

That was in 1872, when Scotsman Tom Morris Jr. took the title.

The Scotland-England rivalry was born, one that would only escalate if one of their own could break through again.