The British adversary golfers from abroad can never take lightly was in aggressive form again at Royal Birkdale yesterday.
However, nobody could be confident that the weather’s rumbustious challenge would be matched in intensity by a generation of home players who have yielded meekly for nearly a decade to foreign domination of The Open.
Though we are constantly being assured of how much young talent is produced by the game in this country, digestion of the cheerful tidings is made difficult.
No Briton’s name has been engraved on the Claret Jug since Scotsman Paul Lawrie from Aberdeen emerged as champion after four days of drama mingled with farce on an eccentrically prepared course at Carnoustie in 1999.
Reluctance to let hype about perceived potential blind us to a dismal scarcity of achievement is instantly reinforced by a glance at what has been happening lately in the other major championship that not so long ago was bolstering our right to think of ours as a powerful golfing nation.
No player from these parts has won The Masters in the past dozen years, whereas there were five British victories between 1988 and 1996, three for Nick Faldo and one each for Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam.
Also, in the six years from 1987 to 1992, Faldo also claimed The Open title three times. Obviously his extraordinary gifts imposed a magnificent distortion on the historical record.
We must remember that between the end of the second world war and his first success in The Open, the trophy finished in the hands of overseas golfers on all but five occasions: Fred Daly (1947), Henry Cotton (1948), Max Faulkner (1951), Tony Jacklin (1969) and Lyle (1985).
So perhaps it is unfair to burden the present crop of hopefuls with comparisons invoking the Faldo era. But the invitation to do so is implicit in all the frequently voiced suggestions that they had been inspired by his example and were ready to prove themselves as his legitimate heirs.
Such optimism has naturally been fed by Europe’s splendid run in the Ryder Cup but team glory is never a reliable guide to the individual tournament performances that represent the essence of professional golf.
That truism is starkly reflected in recent statistics. No European has worn the Masters green jacket since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, and it took the triumph of Ireland’s Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie last summer to end a similar drought in The Open.
These facts amount to uncomfortable reading when we recall that in the 20 years from 1980 onwards, Europeans won the Masters 11 times and The Open seven (and that’s not counting the first of Seve Ballesteros’s three Opens in 1979).
The decline in the continent’s impact on the majors has been both steep and sustained.
Before a ball was struck in earnest on Thursday, we were bound to have doubts about how upbeat we could be concerning the prospects of bucking the trend at Royal Birkdale (the eight Opens so far played on the great Lanca-shire links have been monopolised by America and Australia).
Nor were the misgivings unfounded. As the field battled through howling winds in the third round yesterday—though at least with sunshine replacing the driving rain that had contributed to the extreme miseries of the first morning—the majority of Europe’s most fancied contenders were desperately adrift of the pace being set (at several shots over par) by KJ Choi of Korea and the miraculous 53-year-old Australian Greg Norman.
Norman was somehow managing in the main to look almost as impressive as he did when twice taking possession of the Jug in 1986 and 1993.
Harrington’s combination of technical brilliance and unbreakable will enabled him to share the lead, fall back, and then match strides with the front runners once more.
The prechampionship betting favourite, Sergio Garcia of Spain, had appeared to be on the very edge of contention when he finished yesterday at nine over par. But as scores ballooned, he was entitled to believe his hopes were still alive.
No such comfort could be extended to the widely touted Englishmen Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, who were terminally submerged in massive deficits to par.
Birkdale’s efforts to summon up gales may have guaranteed a hellish experience for the players but the fluctuations created were so irresistibly entertaining that absence from attending one of my favourite events in the sporting calendar started to seem close to an advantage as I absorbed every new surge of excitement from television.
Amid the mayhem inflicted by the gusting hostility of the weather, conditions hideous enough to raise the possibility of a suspension of play as balls moved from their marked positions on a couple of greens, nothing was more intriguing than the determined attempt of Ian Poulter to justify at last his noisy insistence that he is capable of reaching the heights as an international competitor.
Until now, in the biggest events, his deeds haven’t come anywhere near the extravagance of his dress or of boasts unforgettably epitomised by the declaration that, apart from Tiger Woods, he rated nobody in modern golf higher than himself. However, his ability has never been in question and over the past three days the strengths of his game, and especially the purity of his putting stroke, granted him prolonged prominence as the most threatening Englishman.
But by last night he was sliding back into the pack and we were left wondering if the BBC commentators would continue to talk so admiringly about the depth of his self-belief.
To some of us, the claims Poulter makes for himself sometimes sound as convincing as the utterances of the kind of deluded soul who tells you his day job is being Napoleon.
Still, he brings quite a splash of brightness to the fairways, and I certainly have no desire to see him make a forlorn retreat from Birkdale.
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