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
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.
July 28, 1996
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 shotmakers. The
upset at Oak Hill notwithstanding, the evidence strongly
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, Jose Maria Olazabal 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 twentysomethings
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.
By contrast, the PGA Tour has Phil Mickelson and David Duval,
not to mention the 26-year-old Els. In the wings is 20-year-old
Tiger Woods, who finished 22nd at Lytham with a three-under-par
281 that tied the lowest score ever by an amateur in the British
Open. With 18 birdies in 72 holes, Woods again demonstrated that
he has awesome ammunition that will detonate once he learns to
harness his power.
"There are a lot of potentially good young players in Europe,
but they are not developing as quickly as the ones in the
States," says David Leadbetter, swing coach to Faldo and Nick
Price as well as to many American pros. "It has created a gap in
the line of succession."
Faldo's decision last year to spend the majority of his time
playing in the U.S. will probably make that gap wider. Faldo has
encouraged Montgomerie to follow him, and the Scot may do so if
he does not win a major soon. Cejka, for one, makes it clear he
also intends to take his career to the U.S.
Faldo believes the PGA Tour fosters a more precise game than is
played in Europe. Assessing the conditions at Lytham, he
confidently predicted on Wednesday that the Americans would do
well. "Lytham is an accuracy course with an emphasis on distance
control, and that's what you play all the time on the U.S.
Tour," said Faldo. "That's how Watson came over and won so many
Opens. He didn't just do it by improvising shots and having a
great short game. He knew how to hit the ball from point A to
point B, and he just changed his points to allow for 30 yards of
roll. In America, you become more precise and that makes you
Certainly most top U.S. pros believe they are better than the
Europeans, which is what made the loss of the Ryder Cup so
painful. Conversely, it made last week's British Open an
opportunity for redemption.
"We don't get to where we are without having a very competitive
nature," said McCumber, who played at Lytham despite travel
snafus that resulted in a 44 1/2-hour trip to Great Britain and
pushed his arrival time at the course back to late Tuesday
afternoon. "Anytime you lose something representing the American
Tour, when you go to the home ground of the people who beat you,
you want to say, 'Listen, we can really play.' I think there is
an extra determination now."
It was that urgency that Brad Faxon, a member of the losing
Ryder Cup team who finished 33rd at Lytham, tried to convey when
he said before the championship, "We need more guys to come over
here. And we need to win it."
It was Faxon who took the lead in criticizing Scott Hoch for
some anti-British Open comments he had made after winning the
Michelob Championship in Williamsburg, Va., the week prior to
Lytham. Hoch, who has only played in the British Open twice,
called St. Andrews "the worst piece of mess I've ever seen,"
adding, "If I don't enjoy playing in a place, it doesn't make
any difference how big a tournament it is." To add fuel to the
fire, Hoch spent the week playing at the Deposit Guaranty
Classic in Madison, Miss., and was scheduled to cross the
Atlantic to play in the Dutch Open this week for a sizable
"I think Scott Hoch made a big mistake in not coming over here,"
said Faxon. "It is more than sad that a guy who plays so well
does not come over here." Faxon then expanded his comments to
include John Cook, Jim Gallagher and Kenny Perry, three other
Tour regulars who were exempt for the British but didn't travel
abroad. "It's a disgrace they are not here," said Faxon, who
proposed that exempt Americans who skip the British should not
be allowed to play in the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, and
that any prize money they win in a tournament opposite the
British Open should not count on the money list.
Most of his fellow pros at Lytham felt Faxon was overzealous.
Said Jay Haas, a member of the Ryder Cup team who shared a house
with Faxon in Lytham and tied for 22nd, "Playing in the British
Open is up to each individual. With the weather that you can
have over here, if you are not playing well you can end up going
home with your game in shambles. But Brad's very passionate when
it comes to this tournament."
So is Lehman, although he missed last year's championship at St.
Andrews to be with his wife for the birth of their third child.
Of all the Americans, Lehman provided the most demonstrable
rebuttal to charges of softness. Lehman didn't have his A game
on Sunday but used experience, composure and will to execute the
most demanding task in big-time golf: closing out a major.
"I think it's big for our Tour for an American to win the
British Open," Lehman said while clutching the claret jug. "I'm
happy to see Americans play well, and I'm happy I'm the American
Considering the developments at Lytham, the odds are that the
majority of Lehman's successors will also be coming from his
side of the sea.