England rides another big wave of golf talent

Wednesday, April 07, 2010
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

Englishmen stood 10 deep in the 1966 Masters Tournament, a record for the small island in the major with the smallest field. The modern crop, though slightly smaller, takes no back seat to any English regiment.

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Two-time Masters champion and current CBS golf commentator Nick Faldo (left) watches countryman Luke Donald of England work on his swing at the Augusta National practice facility.

(Michael Holahan/Staff)

Ten English golfers are ranked among the top 76 in the world, including all eight who qualified for this year's Masters. Three of them sit inside the top 10, and five in the top 30. It's a far cry from a decade ago, when Lee Westwood was the only one in the top 100.

"I think en masse, we are more equipped to go mob-handed to the major championships now," said Westwood, still the highest-ranking Brit, at No. 4.

With all due respect to three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, multiple major winners Tony Jacklin and Henry Cotton, and turn-of-the-century legends John Taylor, Harold Hilton and John Ball, English golf has never had it so good.

Despite that wealth of talent, the English golfing crowd still gets short shrift on the sports pages back home "compared to some of the other sports that they devote reams and reams of column inches" to, complained Westwood.

"Maybe it will take a major or something for people to open their eyes, but we've got good opportunities at that," said Oliver Wilson, the former Augusta State University star from Weybridge, England. "And, fingers crossed, it's going to happen in the next year or so."

It certainly seems imminent based on recent performances. The nine-man English crowd posted an 18-8 record in the WGC Match Play in February, with Ian Poulter claiming an all-England final against Paul Casey.

Ian Poulter (right) and Lee Westwood shake hands on the No. 5 green during Tuesday's practice round. They are part of a strong English contingent at the Masters.

(Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

At recent majors, the English have been a near constant threat. Westwood barely missed a spot in playoffs at last year's British Open and the 2008 U.S. Open. Poulter was runner-up at the 2008 British. Ross Fisher was in the hunt in the final round at last year's U.S. and British Opens. Chris Wood has posted top 5s in two straight British Opens. Luke Donald has posted four top 10 finishes in majors, including at Augusta in 2005 and '07.

"I think obviously British, and more precisely, English, golf is very strong at the moment," said Westwood, who in 2002 was the highest-rated English golfer, at No. 50.

Part of the reason for this wave of talent can be attributed to European success at Augusta. From 1980-96, 10 Masters were won by Europeans, including four straight from 1988-91 by golfers from the United Kingdom -- Sandy Lyle, Faldo (twice) and Ian Woosnam.

Those performances had a great impact on the current group of English golfers, who were juniors at the time.

"As much as Faldo was a hero of mine, he wasn't my only hero," Casey said. "So I've got to give credit to (Bernhard) Langer, Seve (Ballesteros), Woosie, Lyle, (Jose Maria) Olazabal. ... They are definitely the reason I think you've got such a wave of guys coming through now.

''I mean, they always say, an overnight success takes 10, 15, 20 years, especially in this sport."

Casey remembers being spurred on by Lyle's win in 1988.

"That's when I started to stop playing the football and the cricket and the tennis and the rugby and all of the other sports I played as a kid and focused on the golf," Casey said.

Poulter was inspired by Woosnam's triumph in 1991.

"I can vividly remember Woosie's tartan trousers as he pulled that putt in from about 8 feet on the 18th green and bent to his one knee and give it the fist pump," Poulter said. "I remember that like it was yesterday. I thought back then, 'Wouldn't it be so nice to be in that position?' "

CBS analyst Peter Kostis calls this "the second coming of the Ballesteros-Faldo generation."

Westwood doesn't disagree.

"Many people were saying where is the next crop of English golfers going to come from," Westwood said of the sentiment in 2000 when he was the lone English rep in the top 100. "And 10 years later we have -- I don't know how many it is, haven't counted, but I know it's very strong. I don't know what to put it down to. We are all from different backgrounds. We have all taken different routes to where we are. So there is obviously not really a specific way to nurture young talent. You just have to give different players as many opportunities as possible."

The opportunities have never been better -- or broader -- than this season. Were the Ryder Cup to revert to the olden days when it drew from only Great Britain and Ireland, the Americans would be hard-pressed to compete in Wales in September. The United Kingdom could field a team of 12 from the top 67 in the world, including nine from England.

"We have a great set in England there, and I look forward to captaining them," said Colin Montgomerie, who will captain the European team in Wales.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.