News & Opinion

Talent tilt: Europe's stars edge top Yanks

Pro golf’s competitive landscape changes without warning, long before anyone actually notices the difference. Proven players get hot, then disappear for months. Remember Jordan Spieth? A three-time major champion before his 24th birthday, he hasn’t posted a top-20 finish since last August. Brooks Koepka, the ultimate big-game hunter, may continue to light the world on fire, but only on an as-needed basis.

One interesting thing about the recent Florida Swing is that European players won the final three events. Four of the top five spots on the leaderboard at Bay Hill were occupied by Euros, the lone exception being South Korea’s Sungjae Im. And at last week’s WGC Match Play, eight Europeans advanced to the round of 16. Just four Americans made it that far, although two Yanks did meet in Sunday afternoon’s title bout.

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Rory McIlroy brings a high level of consistency into the Masters next week.

It’s a small sample size obviously, but evidence nonetheless. Europe’s fleet of top players is every bit as strong as Uncle Sam’s, if not stronger. Dustin Johnson remains atop the Official World Golf Ranking, but it’s easy to make a case that Francesco Molinari has performed at a higher level than anyone in the game for close to a year now.

Without question, Rory McIlroy has been the most consistent golfer to this point in 2019: seven starts, seven top 10s, including the Players Championship victory. Justin Rose has cooled off after a spectacular stretch dating to 2017, but he’s still ranked second in the world, leaving me to ponder which side of the Atlantic can claim the better elite tier entering next week’s Masters.

America’s top six: Johnson, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele.

Europe’s top six: Rose, McIlroy, Molinari, Jon Rahm, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood.

As much as I love my country, I’d give a slight edge to the Euros in the here and now. Not only is McIlroy the most talented player on the board, but he has the four major titles, and he’s rounding into form. Rose vs. Thomas is almost a wash, but Molinari has outperformed Johnson at big events, especially if you include the Ryder Cup, which I most certainly do.

DeChambeau has won five times worldwide in the past 10 months. He’s the best player on the back half of either lineup by a considerable margin, but he hasn’t really done anything at the majors. You could ask me in two weeks and I might see it very differently, but the fact that Europe’s nucleus is even comparable to that of the United States tells us several things:

* We shouldn’t be surprised by what happened last September in France, or at any Ryder Cups in the foreseeable future. In the team-match format, the Europeans are better. And now they have the horses.

* Rose, McIlroy and Casey have Americanized themselves to the point where they play a majority of their golf over here. McIlroy went so far as to forfeit his European Tour membership during the offseason, a damaging blow to a circuit that has, in effect, become a feeder system to the PGA Tour.

Rahm plays in just a handful of tournaments outside the United States. Molinari has steadily added to his U.S. schedule in recent years, which may have something to do with why he has gotten so good. Factor in the not-so-recent departure of lead Spaniard Sergio Garcia, and we’re talking about a league almost totally devoid of global star power.

There are four Brits bunched together at Nos. 35-40 in the world ranking who still do most of their competing on the European Tour. Otherwise, the cupboard is bare. Don’t expect a trip to the grocery store any time soon.

* From golden boy to enigma, Spieth finds himself in an ongoing slump, which is another reason why Europe’s top six is every bit as good as America’s. The tenacious Texan has fallen to 32nd in the ranking and is a ghastly 177th in the 2018-19 FedEx Cup derby. Some of Spieth’s putting numbers aren’t terrible, although none of them meets his standard.

That said, putting isn’t the real problem. Spieth ranks 204th on the Tour in strokes gained off the tee and 188th against the field from tee to green. It makes no difference how well you roll it if you’re driving it that poorly. At last summer’s British Open, Spieth held a share of the 54-hole lead, then failed to make a birdie en route to a closing 76. He ended up T-9, four shots behind Molinari. And he hasn’t been close to the same player since.

* Then, of course, there is You Know Who. Tiger Woods hasn’t done much this season to advance on last year’s impressive comeback, but at 12th in the world, he’s the highest-ranked player not included in either top-six list. The Woods Dynasty is certainly a thing of the past, but you don’t win 14 major titles, then forget how to do it is because you had a bad back.

Woods still is a threat every time he tees it up. This is a big year for Woods because he raised the standard of expectation with his overall performance in 2018 – he’s likely to either take it up another notch or settle into life as an above-average tour pro. I’m not sure which way I’d lean there, but I do know one thing: Uncle Sam sure could use a reprisal of the Dude in the Red Shirt.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com