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Euros look to end 'bad spell'

7/16/2004

TROON, Scotland -- Darkness was setting in, but the party was just beginning. Paul Lawrie had made up the biggest final-round deficit in major championship history, then won a playoff to capture the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. He was the toast of Scotland.

And Europe has had nothing to celebrate since.

Not in the Open Championship, which begins Thursday at Royal Troon. Not in any major championship.

Not a single European has won a major title since Lawrie's triumph. Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal won that year's Masters. Otherwise, you have to go back to the 1996 Masters and Nick Faldo to find a European major winner.

Why?

"We're going through a bad spell," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, who was long considered the best bet among Europeans to win a major but had to qualify just to play this week. "People recover and times recover. I think it just so happens that the domination is for the rest of the world right now as opposed to Europe."

"To be honest, we haven't had many guys challenging over the past few years," Faldo said. "There's no real reason why the Europeans shouldn't be challenging. Everybody is talented, but it's the 15th club after that."

Faldo was referring to the mental game, and few had his capacity in that regard. The six-time major winner who captured three Open Championships also had contemporaries who won majors such as Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam.

All of them played most of their golf on the PGA European Tour, which has often been cited as a reason for the malaise. Those players aren't competing against the world's elite week in and week out. Most of the top-ranked players compete on the PGA Tour. Even European tour stalwarts such as Ernie Els and Retief Goosen play full schedules in the United States.

"We had a domination back in the '80s and early '90s, but it seems to have dried up slightly and that will come back," said Montgomerie, who has only one top-10 in 14 Open Championships. "It's just a matter of when and how."

So, who are the contenders? Ireland's Padraig Harrington is the highest-ranked of the European players. Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke has had the most success against top-notch fields, winning two World Golf Championship events. Sergio Garcia, just 24, has contended in a couple of majors and has been expected to be a strong player for years to come. Then there's Paul Casey, Fredrik Jacobson, Ian Poulter, Brian Davis and Justin Rose (who did not qualify for the Open.)

"It's not like we have six in the top 10 at major after major," said Faldo. "Which means if one is up there, he is having to handle an awful lot of pressure. 'Whoa, I'm representing the European Tour here.' If there were five in the top 10, it would be different -- you'd forget about it."

Casey, an Englishman who played college golf at Arizona State, thinks it will take time before Europeans are once again winning majors.

"It's frustrating that there is a bit of a lull just now," said Casey, who tied for sixth in the Masters. "The last European winner of a major was Paul Lawrie. It's sad, really."

Five Things To Watch
1. Has Tiger Woods ever received so little fanfare heading into a major championship? The 2000 British Open winner has gone eight majors without a victory, and has contended in just two of them.

2. Ernie Els has seen two great chances to win majors slip away this year. Can he get his fourth major and his second Open Championship?

3. Phil Mickelson has never contended at a British Open, but his preparation, like at the other majors, has been better than ever.

4. U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen is flying under the radar again, but he won his first start after the Open and has four British Open top-10s, including '97 at Royal Troon.

5. At what point does Vijay Singh start to get some heat for not winning majors? He won his second at the 2000 Masters but has struggled to get it done in recent attempts.



Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.