European prowess clear in world rankings

March, 1, 2011

To the surprise of no one who follows the sport week-to-week, the top of this week's Official World Golf Rankings have a distinctly un-American flavor.

The new king is 26-year-old defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer. It's an ascension that feels like the rankings now accurately reflect what has been true for several months: that the German is undoubtedly, right now, the best player in the world. Kaymer has five wins -- including that major -- on the PGA and European Tours since the beginning of 2010. No one else has more than three in that span on the world's two marquee circuits.

At just about 26 years and 2 months, Kaymer is the second-youngest player to ever sit atop the rankings, trailing only Tiger Woods, who was 21 years, 5 months when he first reached No. 1 back in 1997. He's the second German player to ever reach No. 1, too; Bernhard Langer held the spot for the first three weeks the rankings existed back in 1986.

Trivia question

The last time European players occupied spots 1-4 in the world rankings, what American was No. 5? (Answer below.)

In other European overlord news, Luke Donald never trailed in any match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play en route to victory and the world No. 3 ranking. The deepest any of Donald's matches were all square was just 10 holes. None of Donald's matches even reached the 18th hole.

Not only that, but Graeme McDowell eclipsed Tiger Woods in the rankings -- meaning that Nos. 1-4 in the world all now belong to European players. The last time that happened (March 1992), the first George Bush was still in office, Barry Bonds played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kaymer was 7 years old.

On the other side of the spectrum, Woods has ventured into territory not seen since his historic 1997 Masters victory. This is the first time Tiger has been outside the top four in the world rankings since May, 1997, when he was fifth for the four weeks immediately following his victory at Augusta.

For about 15 years, any evaluations of American golf have been weighted heavily by Woods, so claiming the American touring pros are struggling at a time when Tiger isn't at his best certainly isn't unprecedented. But for all the clamor in the PGA Tour's marketing campaign regarding their next generation of stars, the current rankings certainly do not reflect positively on Americans, specifically the younger ones.

Consider this: There is no American player younger than 32 currently ranked in the top 10 in the world. At 32, Matt Kuchar is the youngest American who is No. 10 this week. Of the top 30 players in the world, only nine are American. Of those nine, only three are younger than 30: Dustin Johnson (14th), Hunter Mahan (19th), and Rickie Fowler (30th).

Compare that to the Europeans -- the No. 1 (Kaymer), No. 3 (Donald), No. 4 (Graeme McDowell), No. 7 (Paul Casey), and No. 8 (Rory McIlroy) are all 33 or younger. There are 13 Europeans currently ranked in the top 30. European Tour players won three of the four major championships in 2010, and the only American to win one last year is on the wrong side of 40.

In some eyes, this is an awful downswing for American golf, decreasing interest in the sport stateside. In other eyes, it's a golden era for the European game, and a sign of the strong global balance and reach of this truly international sport. Both are probably true.

The Honda Classic this week offers up a tremendous field that will feature five of the world's top 10 players, 22 of the top 50 and 16 different major champions. The course they will be taking on is one of the more challenging ones on the PGA Tour. The PGA National Champion Course has ranked among the top 10 most difficult on tour each year since the event began playing there in 2007.

In fact, last year the par-70 course played to an average of 71.640 (+1.640), second-toughest on tour behind only Pebble Beach the week of the U.S. Open. Among non-majors, the course ranked first, fourth, sixth and fourth-hardest each year since 2007.

Part of what makes the course so difficult is the famed "Bear Trap," a three-hole stretch constituted of the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. Last year, the stretch played to nearly a full shot over par -- 10.803 strokes on the par-3, par-4, par-3 sequence.

The two par-3s in the group were both among the 50 toughest holes on the PGA Tour a year ago. The 16th hole played a bit easier, but still ranked among the 200 most difficult. Among all par-3s on the PGA Tour last year, the 15th hole ranked second-toughest, behind only the famed 17th at Pebble Beach during the U.S. Open.

Trivia answer

Question: The last time European players occupied spots 1-4 in the world rankings, what American was No. 5?

Answer: Fred Couples, in March 1992

It's not just the Bear Trap, though, that will give the world's best golfers fits. The par-4 sixth hole played as the second-toughest par-4 on Tour last year among non-majors. In all, four holes last year ranked among the 50 most difficult on the PGA Tour in 2010. To put that into perspective, Whistling Straits, where the PGA Championship was played, had just three in the top-50.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to



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