Only one European has won the British Open since 1992--Paul
Lawrie of Scotland, in '99, at Carnoustie--so it was no surprise
that the grandstand crowds at Muirfield howled their heads off
on Sunday when an Englishman threw down an eight-birdie gauntlet
and nearly walked off with the famous claret jug. No, the
surprise was that most of those cheering for Gary Evans had
absolutely no idea who he was. In 1992 Evans broke his wrist on
a bunker shot during a promising rookie season. Ten years later
he suddenly appeared in living rooms around the world, looking
for a lost ball and a dream in grass that was deeper than a Zen
Two hours after Evans's rousing finish, which included a
miraculous par save at 17 despite his lost ball, the grandstand
fans were treated to the theatrics of an equally obscure
European, 34-year-old Thomas Levet of France. Levet tapped in on
the 72nd hole, capping a final-round 66 to join in a historic,
four-way playoff in which he would get to play 18 twice more (and
bogey it both times). Entering Muirfield ranked No. 134 in the
world, Levet portrayed himself as a less deserving golfer than
Ernie Els, the ultimate winner. "I'm getting better," he said,
"but I'm not that good at it."
And he was one of the relatively successful Europeans. At the
other extreme the 131st Open Championship gave us slumping
Eurostar Lee Westwood, whose failure to make any noise may prove
more significant in the long run. "When you're on a roll, the
bounces go your way," a dejected Westwood said last Thursday.
"When you're not...."
He put his hands in his pockets, seeing no need to finish the
thought. Westwood was so not on a roll last week that he would
have liked to have hidden under a rock. He was Europe's No.
1--and the world's No. 5--only two years ago, but he recently
dropped out of the Top 100 in the World Ranking. The vaunted
Westwood confidence, bolstered by 24 worldwide tournament wins
from 1996 to 2000, is reduced to expressions of hope. ("It's
just a matter of getting going, trying to get in contention
again.") The Westwood insouciance, which helped him win more
tournaments by age 28 than any other golfer in history save
Tiger Woods, has given way to tepid rationalizations. ("The
public attention and the fame part is the bit I can do without.")
The bounces, meanwhile, continue to go against him. Westwood
bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes last Friday to miss the cut by
one stroke. "It's disappointing," said agent Chubby Chandler,
watching his client disappear into the clubhouse without a word.
"He takes one step forward and one step back."
Since Westwood was expected to be a dependable part of the
European Ryder Cup team against the U.S. when the match begins
on Sept. 27, and since Evans and Levet are grinders who will
probably never make a Ryder Cup squad, it's tempting to see
their performances at Muirfield as one more sign that European
golf is in decline. But then, it's always in decline, isn't it?
Since 1994, when English star Nick Faldo criticized Europe for
its poorly maintained golf courses, hopeless practice facilities
and shabby hotels, the European tour has seemed to teeter on the
abyss. Stars like Jesper Parnevik and Sergio Garcia now play
most of their golf in the U.S. Those confirmed Europhiles who
remain, such as Thomas Bjorn, Padraig Harrington and Colin
Montgomerie, roll their eyes over their tour's personal feuds
and national jealousies. "The fact that the European tour exists
at all is a bloody miracle," says Patricia Davies, a writer for
The Times of London. "The bigger miracle is that despite the
politics and problems, it somehow thrives."
How it does so is a mystery. Like a creeper vine, the European
tour attaches itself to as many as five continents in a season,
staging tournaments from Taiwan to Qatar to Kuala Lumpur. Like a
cactus, it gets by on limited resources, exploiting a field staff
willing to work 14-hour days in cramped trailers and damp tents.
Like a flame nettle, it wilts--as was the case last fall, when
fears surrounding the events of Sept. 11 touched off rumors that
a third of the 2002 schedule might have to be scrapped--only to
revive the instant conditions improve.
The four rounds at Muirfield certainly gave European golf fans
reason for optimism. Day One saw the triumphant return of the boy
genius, Justin Rose, who turned heads as a 17-year-old amateur in
1998, when he tied for fourth at Royal Birkdale. Rose will not
play for Europe in September, but his two European tour wins in
2002, his ranking as the top English golfer and his opening round
of 68 at the Open--two shots better than playing partner Tiger
Woods--suggest that he will be a perennial Ryder Cupper.
"You can only do that by playing really good golf," Rose says.
In fact he did it by playing really bad golf in his first two
pro seasons while somehow holding on to his discipline and
confidence. During one stretch from 1998 to 2000, when he
struggled to find either a driver or a swing that could land him
consistently in the fairway, Rose missed 21 of 26 tournament
cuts. So when he was asked last week if he still felt like a
beginner, he answered no, "I feel a bit battle-hardened, to be
honest." Bjorn, the Ryder Cupper from Denmark, was less
restrained in his appraisal of Rose, saying, "You're talking
about one of the biggest talents the game has ever seen. He went
through a very, very rough time, but that's why he's as good as
he is today."
The third round at Muirfield, of course, will be remembered for
the rain and wind that washed most of the Americans off the
leader board. At one point Carl Pettersson, a transplanted Swede
with a home in Raleigh, shared the lead at three under with
48-year-old Des Smyth, a free-spirited Irishman with eight career
Euro tour wins, and 28-year-old Soren Hansen, a kite-flying
native of Denmark. Last Friday, after finishing one shot out of
the lead, Hansen sat down for a press conference, only to face a
room full of empty seats. "Probably nobody believes in a Dane any
more," he joked.
So how did the European golfers explain their continued
relevance? Well, they smiled bashfully and acknowledged that it
might be the money, which, while still not up to PGA standards,
is growing. Since the Sky Sports Network bought the rights to the
tour in 1997, airtime has increased and purses have gone up, a
combination that has made more kids keen on golf. The national
golf federations have also boosted the European game by
identifying gifted youngsters, providing them with coaching and
cash subsidies, and sending them to international competitions.
"There's three times as many Swedes on tour as Scots," says David
Davies, golf correspondent for The Guardian. "That's an
astonishing statistic, when you consider that practically every
little Scot grows up with a club in his hand."
Whatever the cause, the Euros have reason to believe that their
next generation of stars is just coming out of the incubator.
They point to second-year pro Paul Casey, who broke Phil
Mickelson's stroke-average record at Arizona State, won four
matches for his victorious Great Britain and Ireland team at the
1999 Walker Cup and seized the Gleneagles Scottish PGA
Championship last year as a European tour rookie. ("He looks like
the new Tony Jacklin," says Davies of The Guardian. "There's a
physical resemblance, and he hits the ball bloody miles.") They
also point to 20-year-old "Little Nick" Dougherty of Liverpool,
England, a Faldo protege and one of the stars of the victorious
2001 GB&I Walker Cup team. Dougherty, who is an accomplished
flutist and a pilot-in-training, tied for second at this year's
The biggest cloud in the Eurogolf sky, then, is the one
enveloping the 29-year-old Westwood. Two years ago he had the
best scoring average in Europe, won five tournaments on the Euro
tour, earned more than $3 million and became one of only four
players to win a pro event that Tiger Woods had led after three
rounds, the Deutsche Bank SAP Open. Last year Westwood plummeted
to 108th in scoring average, dropped to 52nd on the money list
and won nothing but sympathy. If he doesn't turn it around,
Westwood's will be the fastest erosion of a golf talent since
Ian Baker-Finch went to pieces in the 1990s.
Why the tumble? Friends claim that Westwood's 1999 marriage to
Laurae Coltart, sister of Scottish golfer Andrew Coltart,
followed by the birth last year of their first child, Samuel,
left Westwood blissful--and perhaps less hungry. Westwood
resists that explanation, saying, "I was playing badly before
Sam was born," but his longtime coach, Peter Cowen, remembers
Westwood going down an imaginary checklist, ticking off his
achievements: "A million pounds, tick ... beautiful wife and
son, tick...Ryder Cup, tick...big house, tick...." Westwood's
conclusion: "I'm almost 30, and I've done everything."
But he hasn't. Not quite. Westwood has yet to win a major, and
it's that bit of unfinished business that has him grinding on the
practice range, watching his diet and working out with a fitness
coach to harden his somewhat puffy physique. "He's much closer to
the Lee Westwood I know," Chandler said on the eve of the Open.
"There's a little light in his eye that hasn't been there for 12
Whatever sparkle Chandler saw last week was gone by Friday.
Westwood came to the 18th hole needing a par to advance to the
weekend. His approach shot found an awkward spot in a greenside
bunker--one of those bounces that Westwood says are not going his
way anymore--and he had to stand on a grassy bank and balance
precariously to address the ball below his feet. Needing to get
up and down, he chunked his ball onto the fringe and missed a
15-foot putt. "It's frustrating," said Westwood, baffled by his
inability to regain form.
In the end, despite Levet's good play and Top 10 finishes by
Harrington, Bjorn, Garcia and Hansen, it was the Englishman,
Evans, who rescued the Europeans from their punishing
self-analysis. Leading the Open by a stroke as he stood in the
fairway on the par-5 17th, Evans whipped a four-wood into the
deep stuff short of the green. Eight minutes later he hit again
from the fairway, having found several golf balls in the heather,
but none bearing his mark. "I couldn't believe I hit it into 150
people and no one saw it, no one heard it," Evans said.
Millions, of course, saw him make eagle with his second ball for
a scorecard par. When the putt fell, the crowd's roar was so loud
it must have been heard across the water on the Continent.
"Bungee jumps, you can keep it," Evans gushed at his press
conference. "Jumping out of planes, you can keep it."
But the claret jug? Neither Evans nor the other Europeans at
Muirfield could keep that.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH MON DIEU! Ranked 134th in the world, Levet blasted his way into the playoff.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER GOING SOUTH Once a rising star, Westwood failed to make the cut.
COLOR PHOTO: ADAM BUTLER/AP EVANS TO BETSY! His miracle par at 17 had the Englishman all fired up.
"The fact that the European tour exists at all is a bloody
miracle," says a Times of London writer.
Despite their woes, the Euros believe their next generation of
stars is coming out of the incubator.