It used to be that for American golf pros, a British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes was the equivalent of a playoff road game, like facing the Celtics at Boston Garden in June without air conditioning, the Packers at Lambeau Field in December without sideline heaters or hockey's Florida Panthers at Miami Arena without rattraps.
More than any other links on the rota, Lytham's coffin-sized bunkers and unforgiving finish wore down Americans the way French menus do, and any survivors were finished off by the effects of nearby Blackpool's cheesy Promenade hard by the Irish Sea. While Americans have won British Opens elsewhere, none have triumphed at Lytham since the amateur Bobby Jones took home the claret jug in 1926, the first year the championship was played there.
Of course, Tom Lehman changed all that Sunday with a hard-nosed final round of 73 that inelegantly but sufficiently answered the competition and Lytham's blue-collar demands. Not only was Lehman's victory the second in a row for an American in the game's most venerable major championship (after just one win in the previous 11 years), but also five Americans finished in the top 10, the most since 1990. Counting PGA Tour regulars, the number jumped to eight out of 10, a ratio that hadn't been achieved since the 1980 championship. In fact, the top six finishers—Lehman, Mark McCumber, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Jeff Maggert and Mark Brooks—all play regularly on the Tour.
The lesson learned at Lytham is this: At the major championship that offers the widest sampling of the best players, the final leader board underscores a sizable shift in the balance of power toward this side of the Atlantic. Lytham was the latest evidence of a resurgence in the prominence of the PGA Tour, which has gained momentum while the European tour and its core group of top players have slipped into a sharp decline.
It must be noted that the Open was played in four days of balmy conditions. "I think if it had been harsher weather, you would have seen more Europeans contending," said Els, who has been a member of both the U.S. and the European tours. "The conditions were not much different than we play every week in the States."
But the 1996 championship was still links golf, the crucial factor being judging and controlling the bounce of the ball. What happened at Lytham was attributable to more than just a heat wave. When Americans were dominating the British Open for better than two decades, beginning with Arnold Palmer's pilgrimage in 1960, victory was achieved in all sorts of weather. U.S. players won 12 times between 1970 and 1983 for the simple reason that as a group they were the best golfers. And while the overall quality of play around the world is stronger than it has ever been, on the professional level America is once again asserting its superiority. The very best golfers, from Greg Norman to Faldo to Els to Lehman, are members of the PGA Tour, creating a standard that is far higher than the level of play on rival tours in Europe, Australia or Japan.
As Loren Roberts, who finished 18th last week, said with some heat, "I'm not about to concede that the only reason the Americans played well is because of nice weather; we all played the same course. I just think the quality of our play was better."
It's true that European teams currently hold the Curtis Cup, the Walker Cup and the Ryder Cup, and that before Lytham there were only three Americans among the top 10 on the Sony Ranking. Since losing the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., last September, U.S. pros have had to endure the view that the Europeans proved they were tougher and better shot-makers. The upset at Oak Hill notwithstanding, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
First of all, the European tour is struggling, plagued by bad weather, bad courses, bad attendance and skeptical sponsors. More important, the talent supply is dwindling. Four members of Europe's original Big Six—the group of players responsible for holding the Ryder Cup eight of the last 12 years—are all either past their primes or in crisis. (Faldo and Colin Montgomerie are the exceptions.) At Lytham, José María Olazábal didn't play because of career-threatening rheumatoid arthritis, while Bernhard Langer withdrew with a sore shoulder after an opening 75. Seve Ballesteros, who won the last two Opens held at Lytham, shot 74-78 to miss the cut by nine strokes. Ian Woosnam, who has made a strong resurgence this season after three lost years, also missed the cut, and by finishing 56th Sandy Lyle continued the wandering that has taken him from the top of the game in 1988 to near the bottom. As for Montgomerie, clearly Europe's top player and ranked No. 2 in the world, he was one of the favorites going into Lytham but lost his swing in the gales of the Scottish Open the week before and also missed the cut.
None of the above would be portentous if the European tour had new stars in the offing, but the youth movement is weak. Peter Hedblom of Sweden finished tied for seventh at Lytham and Alexander Cejka of Germany tied for 11th with Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, but none of them, or other twenty-somethings such as Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley of Ireland, have produced the excitement, or the results, of the Big Six when those players were developing.