Newfound Ryder Cup Optimism for Europe after Open
SO IT turns out that the Americans are not invincible after all, and the game of golf is all the better for it. At the start of the final round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie it would have taken a very foolish man or woman who would have bet against the Claret Jug not heading back across the Atlantic Ocean once again.
Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner were nine under par with fellow American Kevin Chappell tucked in behind them. One of them surely would add to the run of success enjoyed by US players in recent majors, with all the smart money on Spieth making a successful defence of the title.
Matt Kuchar was also lurking with intent. The European challenge was faltering. It all spelt doom and gloom for the Ryder Cup match to take place at Golf National near Paris in September. Thomas Bjorn and his team may as well not bother turning up.
Really? Let’s look a bit closer, shall we. Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, the world No1 and No2 at the start of the week, both missed the cut. So did Bubba Watson. Brooks Koepka, the double US Open champion, managed to survive the week but the puzzle was just too difficult for him to solve and he finished well down the field.
Rickie Fowler, having played himself into contention midway through the third round, ran up a triple-bogey eight and was never heard from again. Phil Mickelson barely made the cut and was utterly outplayed on the last day by Eddie Pepperell, a young Englishman who was suffering from a hangover and who probably won’t even make the European team.
Invincible? Far from it.
As the final round began to unfold, Schauffele, Kisner and Spieth began to fritter shots away. For Spieth it was almost a carbon copy of Birkdale 12 months ago, but this time there was to be no brilliant comeback. He looked mortal, his putting letting him down, his driving just dreadful at times. Kisner’s challenge was over by the time he moved to the fifth tee. Schauffele lasted a bit longer but also played himself out of contention before a stirring fightback on the back nine. But when it mattered most, he dropped a shot at the 17th and his chance was gone too. Chappell is a fine player, but somebody to be feared in Paris, if he makes the team? Hardly.
The most heartwarming story was the re-emergence as a major challenger of Tiger Woods at the age of 42. He produced some stirring play over the front nine and strode to the 11th tee leading The Open. But the frailties remain. A wild drive, awful second, fluffed third and three putts put paid to his chances. In days of old, he would have bounced straight back with a birdie at the 12th. This model took a bogey. Three shots gone in two holes. We should nevertheless celebrate his sixth-place finish.
But when the chips are really down in a Ryder Cup four ball or singles match, can Woods deliver when it counts?
And what of our boys? Justin Rose birdied the fearsome 18th hole on all four days. On Friday he managed to roll home a 20-footer just to make the cut. And over the weekend he fired rounds of 64 and 69 to finish joint second. Nobody played better over those closing 36 holes.
Rory McIlroy continues to suffer the screaming heebie-jeebies from four and five feet. He missed a bucketload of short par putts over four days at Carnoustie. And yet there he was, right in the mix at the end, finishing tied with Rose.
Tommy Fleetwood was not at his best but still thrilled the crowd with some sparkling play and proved once again that he truly has arrived as a world-class golfer.
And then there was Francesco Molinari. He is 35 years of age and here he was winning his third title since the end of May. He is one of the straightest hitters the European Tour has ever produced. He has always been a wonderful iron player but, for years, was dogged by a dodgy putting stroke. No longer. His performance on the greens, especially in the final round when it mattered most, was simply spectacular. And he did it all in the company of Woods. This is a man who will be at the heart of Bjorn’s team.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course. Jon Rahm lost his temper (repeatedly) during the second round and duly missed the cut, as did Sergio Garcia, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Ian Poulter.
But there was plenty to be cheerful about in the performances of the likes of Pepperell and Chris Wood.
As they survey their likely teams this morning, you can be certain that it is Thomas Bjorn who will be feeling the happier man. Jim Furyk, the US skipper, will know that some of his men may falter when faced with the brutal challenges they are sure to face at Golf National - not to mention the fact that a huge crowd will cheer each and every one his side’s poor shots.
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