Open hosted by U.S., but visitors owned it
For a good part of Sunday afternoon, it appeared as if a dubious bit of golf history was about to be made. No American was in the top five at the U.S. Open, something that has not occurred at the national championship going back to the earliest days of the 111-year tournament.
Kevin Chappell and Robert Garrigus rallied for the American cause, tying for third, although they never threatened winner Rory McIlroy, as he won by 8 strokes and was 10 ahead of an American duo that nobody has ever suggested would be the next great players in the game.
They happened to be the only Americans among the top 10, too, and now we've gone five straight majors with international players hoisting the game's biggest trophies. When did that happen last? Not once since the Masters began in 1934.
So, things looks a little bleak for U.S. golf at the moment. Only three of the top 10 spots in the world rankings are occupied by Americans, the highest being No. 5 Steve Stricker, who is 44 years old. Next is Phil Mickelson, 41, then Matt Kuchar, who, despite his incredible success of the past two years, has a grand total of three PGA Tour titles to his name.
And yet, is this really something to be alarmed about?
"It goes in ebbs and flows, doesn't it?" Ireland's Padraig Harrington said. "We [Europeans] were strong in the '80s, and we're obviously strong at the moment. There's a lot of potential behind the guys who are winning, and it's great for the European Tour. But it does go in ebbs and flows."
Americans seem to have a bunch of potential at the moment, but we know how far that goes. Dustin Johnson is ranked 11th in the world, but he hasn't won this year; Bubba Watson, the defending champion at this week's Travelers Championship, has won three times in a year and has moved to 13th; Nick Watney had a big win earlier this year at Doral and has moved to 15th, but he has been quiet since that win.
Tiger Woods has been in free fall as he loses points from victories two years ago and continues to sit because of injuries. He is 17th -- as late as October, he was No. 1.
"Everything goes in streaks," said U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Davis Love III. "We might be talking about how four Americans win the next four."
Love pointed out that, in an individual sport , players are not looking at the flags beside names on the leaderboard.
"We're just playing the golf course; we don't play nationalities," Love said after the U.S. Open. "We're playing golf and trying to win. If it's Kevin Chappell who shoots 16 under or Rory, it doesn't make any difference to me. I got whipped.
"The world is a smaller place. So, I think we're going to get used to it."
The bigger view is that it's a world game and that players from all over can win major championships. And, in the case of McIlroy, you're not likely to hear much consternation over the fact that he is not from America.
"It feels like a home match [here]," McIlroy said after winning the Open. "They cheered for me all week. It's special for a foreigner to feel like you're one of their own. That'll probably be pretty important in the next few years."
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy has pulled out of next week's French Open on the European Tour and will not return to competition until the Open Championship at Royal St. George's, July 14-17.
After that, he is expected to play in consecutive weeks at the Irish Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship. Those latter two tournaments are expected to be his last in the United States this year.
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McIlroy, 22, is not a member of the PGA Tour, having given up his membership this year after playing the tour in 2010. That means his starts are limited. Because he was a tour member and rescinded his membership, McIlroy is allowed only 10 PGA Tour starts, plus the Players Championship. (Martin Kaymer, for example, who has never been a PGA Tour member, is allowed 13 starts.)
That means the four majors, the three WGC events in the U.S. and three others. This year, it was the Honda Classic, Wells Fargo Championship and the Memorial. Unless the tour changes its rules, expect more of the same in 2012, according to McIlroy's agent.
Chubby Chandler said McIlroy will not be joining the PGA Tour -- or playing the tour's signature event, the Players Championship, in 2012. The same goes for world No. 2 Lee Westwood. Both players are represented by Chandler, and both took some heat for skipping the Players this year.
"Their schedules will be similar next year to this because they have worked," Chandler said at the U.S. Open. "So they will not be playing the TPC [Players] again next year. Lee won the two events he chose [in Asia] ahead of the TPC. They don't get it. The TPC does not mean as much to those who are not members [of the PGA Tour] and don't play here. It's not relevant in the same way.
"We don't work around money. They make enough of that. There is a culture in our company [International Sports Management] of playing around the world. There is no stimulus here. Every week tends to be the same in America. It's a bit of a treadmill. And you become part of that. Our lads like the variety of playing all over. I've already told them [the PGA Tour] they will not be changing schedules."
UCLA's Patrick Cantlay has been on quite a roll. After playing in the NCAA championship in Oklahoma three weeks ago, he accepted college player of the year honors from Jack Nicklaus at the Memorial, qualified for the U.S. Open the next day in a sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, competed in the Palmer Cup matches in Connecticut against Great Britain, then played in his first U.S. Open.
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Cantlay, 19, didn't disappoint there, either, finishing as the low amateur at Congressional. With a final-round 72, Cantlay finished at 284, even par, making him the first amateur to finish at par or better at the U.S. Open since Nicklaus was 2 under in 1960 as a runner-up to Arnold Palmer.
"It means so much because there's so much history," said Cantlay, who will be a sophomore at UCLA. "Obviously, it's my first U.S. Open, so it means a lot to me that I was able to compete well in my first one. It's just exciting and makes me feel good."
Despite his run of recent success and a strong freshman year at UCLA, Cantlay said he has no intentions of turning pro any time soon. In fact, he plans to stay for all four years.
"Golf is pretty cool," he said. "It takes you to some cool spots. I'm just going to keep having fun and play as good as I can. Words can't describe how fun this week has been."
If perhaps some of the glowing praise for Rory McIlroy might be a bit too much. No doubt, McIlroy sparkled at Congressional, and the accolades he received for dominating the tournament were justified. Yes, he was younger than Jack Nicklaus when he won his first major championship. And he took over an event unlike any player since Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open.
But the comparisons to the two most prolific major winners are probably premature. McIlroy is an unbelievable talent, and observers such as Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell have been saying so for years. McDowell, 31, snapped to attention seven years ago when McIlroy, at age 15, shot a course-record 61 at Royal Portrush, a famous links course in McDowell's hometown.
And then there is the golf swing to die for, the languid, flexible motion that propels a ball a long way. McIlroy hits towering irons shots, has a solid short game and, when his putter works, can produce the kind of scores we saw this past weekend.
But winning one major does not mean he will be hauling down Nicklaus or Woods. It is almost unfair to make such a leap.
Remember, this was just the third professional victory for McIlroy. He has one regular tour victory in Europe and one on the PGA Tour, along with the U.S. Open. He has been in the mix a lot, but his win at Dubai in 2009 came after nearly blowing a 6-shot lead on the back nine, and his win at Quail Hollow last year came after making the cut on the number, then roaring from behind to shoot 62 on the final day.
In McIlroy's brief PGA Tour career over three seasons, he has missed six cuts -- the same number Woods has missed in his career.
"He's been knocking on the door," Lee Westwood said. "It's amazing he's only ever won three tournaments [considering] the amount of time he gets into contention. Maybe this will give that impetus to go forward and win more often."
And that certainly will be something to watch. McIlroy has led each of the past four majors at some point and has led seven of the past eight rounds in majors.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies And Bogeys
1. Rory McIlroy. What more can you say? A slew of birdies, a slew of records, a command performance at the U.S. Open.
2. Jason Day. The Australian was never in contention, but he did make a spirited battle for second place and now has runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open -- in his first appearance in each.
3. Sergio Garcia. It has been a strange time for the one-time phenom, but you have to give him credit for not only qualifying for the Open but also earning a spot in next year's tournament with a tie for seventh.
2. Luke Donald. The current world No. 1 perhaps peaked too soon, with a run of top-10 finishes going back to February. But he didn't get under par at Congressional until the final round.
3. Ernie Els. The Big Easy truly appears lost right now, his four-putt of the 10th green Friday epitomizing his struggles as he missed the cut.
• Bubba Watson returns to defend his title at this week's Travelers Championship, where last year he captured his first PGA Tour title. He has since added victories at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and is ranked 11th in the world.
• With all the talk about Rory McIlroy winning his first major championship at age 22, it is interesting to note that the LPGA's Yani Tseng already has three at the same age heading into this week's LPGA Championship near Rochester, N.Y.
• You'd have thought the putt Robert Garrigus holed on the 72nd hole at the U.S. Open had won him the tournament judging by his fist-pumping reaction. Garrigus was simply thrilled to be part of the show, and his tie for third was big in its own right. It gets him into next year's Masters and U.S. Open.
• The top 10 finishers and ties earned a spot in next year's U.S. Open field at the Olympic Club, which was big not only for Garrigus but also for Sergio Garcia, who had to qualify for the Open this year.
• The top eight also get an invitation to the Masters, assuming Augusta National does not change its criteria.
• There were 32 rounds under par at Congressional on Sunday, crushing the previous record number for the final round. There were 18 at Baltusrol in 1993.
• Aussie Mathew Goggin's victory in Wichita, Kan., on Sunday was his second of the year on the Nationwide Tour, meaning another win will give him a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour. He leads the money list, which means he is in good shape for a promotion next year, regardless of wins.
"The probability of Northern Ireland producing back-to-back U.S. Open champions is a lottery number. It's bigger than that, you know? It's incredible." -- Graeme McDowell, 2010 U.S. Open champion and native of Northern Ireland on countryman Rory McIlroy following him with a victory.
Catching up with '10 champ
A year ago, Bubba Watson was a player who had never won anything of significance as a professional. That all changed at the Travelers Championship, where he defeated Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in a sudden-death playoff to net his first PGA Tour win.
Along with a playoff loss to Martin Kaymer at the PGA Championship, the victory helped propel Watson to his best year, as he also secured a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
This year, you could argue that he has been the tour's best American player. He has won twice -- at Torrey Pines and New Orleans -- and has climbed to No. 11 in the world.
Watson, coming off of a tie for 61st at the U.S. Open, has three top-10s this year, has won more than $2.9 million and is second in the FedEx Cup standings.