Commentary

Luke Donald's win highlights Euro rise

Originally Published: February 27, 2011
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

MARANA, Ariz. -- As the championship contenders -- a pair of steely-eyed Europeans -- marched down the fourth fairway during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship finale on Sunday, they were greeted by a deluge from the heavens largely unfamiliar in professional golf. Sleet pellets the size of, well, not quite golf balls but not too far off, pummeled the players, forcing them to suspend the proceedings in the desert for five minutes.

To some, the cloudburst symbolized an apocalypse, those little white particles attacking like a plague on the current state of American golf. To others, it represented a new era in European dominance, the golf gods raining down a ticker-tape parade in celebration of the resurgence.

The truth is, we saw this coming. No, not the inclement weather in Arizona, but the comeuppance of elite golfers from across the pond. And so just a few hours after the sleet desisted and the sun broke through on an unseasonably chilly afternoon, Luke Donald stood as the victor against impending No. 1 player Martin Kaymer. The bigger winner was the continent of Europe, which seized the top four spots in the Official World Golf Ranking.

To borrow from famed sports writer Grantland Rice, "In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Kaymer, Westwood, Donald and McDowell."

For the first time since four horsemen named Woosnam, Faldo, Olazabal and Ballesteros occupied the world's most elite quartet during the week of March 15, 1992, there are four European golfers who own the highest status in the world.

There's Kaymer, who despite losing the final match, is now the 14th player to become No. 1 since the ranking was conceived in 1986. There's Lee Westwood, who previously held that top spot for 17 weeks before succumbing to his brethren. There's Graeme McDowell, who has proven time and again over the past year that he is worthy of his current fourth-place ranking.

And then there's Donald. Largely thought to be a disappointment for much of his career, the 33-year-old Brit had failed to win on American soil in a half-decade and owned only one international victory during that time, claiming last year's Madrid Masters title.

This week, though, he played like a man whose talent had caught up to his potential. Donald never trailed in his six matches, never needed to play the course's 18th hole and posted an eye-popping 32 birdies, thanks largely to a near-flawless short game.

The end result was a rise from ninth to third on the ranking -- a move that Donald himself understands will be met with quizzical looks and shaken heads.

"To make a jump like this is -- whether I deserve No. 3 in the world, I don't know," he said. "But certainly in terms of my work ethic and wanting it, then I do deserve it."

There's more to reaching such a level than simply wanting it, though. Perhaps the easiest way to explain the current European reign is to steal a former slogan of the PGA Tour: "These guys are good."

It's not only the aforementioned four players who are enjoying the fruits of their labor. Also included among the world's top 20 are Paul Casey (No. 7), Rory McIlroy (8), Ian Poulter (13), Robert Karlsson (17), Francesco Molinari (18) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (20). It's no wonder the Ryder Cup chants of "Ole, ole, ole, ole!" are still echoing four months after the European triumph in Wales.

"European golf has been great," Kaymer said. "And for us to make golf even more popular in the world, it's fantastic to have four Europeans up there. It was always Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and now there are four Europeans up there, so it's good."

Ah, yes. Woods and Mickelson. The two Americans who often played cat and mouse for the No. 1 ranking last year with Phil failing to catch his foe have dropped to fifth and sixth, respectively, in the new world order.

Despite the figurative deluge of criticism, let's not call this the apocalypse just yet. There are currently eight U.S. golfers in the world's top 20 -- just two fewer than those from Europe -- and three of them are ranked at or above their placement when the year began. The decline of the red, white and blue might be a hot topic right now, but this is truly cyclical. Much like the Arizona weather, it could be here today, gone tomorrow.

Just ask their European counterparts.

"I'm sure Tiger and Phil, they will chase us up there," Kaymer suggested. "But the guys who are up there, they are very consistent, good players. So I can see them staying there for a while, yeah."

"Well, you know, people win, you move up," Donald explained. "There is some volatility in the world rankings that, you know, Tiger Woods isn't way ahead and no one has a chance to catch him now. I think that spot for being No. 1 in the world is up for grabs for a number of people. And I think that makes it fun for us and hopefully makes it fun for the fans at home, too."

For right now, that might depend on where "home" is for the fans. Those who root for the elite players from Europe have plenty to cheer about these days.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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