James Lawton: One of Europe's Ryder Cup heroes must find the steel necessary to storm the US Open

Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Justin Rose must step up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The European golfers who built a monument to the spirit of Seve Ballesteros in a golden Ryder Cup autumn cut much less inspiring figures in the sodden summer greenery of the famous old Merion course in Pennsylvania on the eve of the US Open.

But then, you might well ask, when was it otherwise? The answer is brief and brutal.

The boys who for so long have decorated the top-10 rankings while amassing so many millions, whose Ryder Cup glory begins to resemble something like parole time from the killing pressures of major-tournament golf, certainly have a huge debt to Graeme McDowell and his currently embattled compatriot Rory McIlroy.

Their one-two winning punches in this great tournament in 2010 and 2011 broke a pattern that rivalled English football in its post-1966 futility. Before the Irish breakthrough you had to go back to Tony Jacklin's 1970 win and marching back beyond that triumph is another huge trek, all the way to US-based Scottish pro Willie Macfarlane's win in 1925.

However, there is a reward – one that seems almost surreal in these days of skeletal major pickings for raiders from this side of the Atlantic – in that huge journey: an epic victory over the great Bobby Jones, one that required two 18-hole play-off rounds.

So why is it that the US Open is almost invariably a bastion of American strength while the only major tournament played on this side of the Atlantic is so regularly plundered by Uncle Sam, who boasts 11 Open winners in the last 18 tournaments?

Sooner or later we have to confront the question of competitive character, an ability to live effectively under the fiercest individual pressure.

Sir Nick Faldo, whose best US Open finish was a second place in 1988 while marching to three US Masters and three Open wins, insists, "If you want to win majors you just have to be absolutely single-minded. When I was a kid I wanted to be a golf machine, I was willing to hit millions of golf balls if that's what it took – and then when I won a few majors I realised the really hard work had just begun."

It is a considerable morsel for thought at a time when we hear that one potential McIlroy response to questions about his crisis of form was to run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 72 steps and mimic the posturing of Rocky Balboa.

Of course McIlroy has given evidence he could be a man of the golfing ages. He did not so much win the US Open and US PGA titles as annexe them but in the rush to unimaginable wealth, helped along by a change of clubs, which Faldo was derided for suggesting might represent a major check on career momentum, has he begun to rival the steeliness of Tiger Woods when he was 24?

The evidence is less than convincing.

Back when Woods was laying down his claims to be the greatest golfer of all time, the legendary Gary Player fired a broadside at two hugely gifted Europeans, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, pointing out that for all their talent they were demonstrably unfit, and certainly when compared to his young companion in the gym that morning.

It happened to be Tiger Woods, of whom the spiky South African declared, "He was pumping weights, doing the kind of thing which you need to do if you want to be equipped to be a great player in the modern game."

That may be history now but at Merion in the next few days there is every chance of it recurring.

Whether the restored world No 1 comes under the most serious pressure is a question that needs to be answered by at least one of the four Europeans currently installed among the world's top 10; McIlroy, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and McDowell.

All of them have displayed strands of brilliance and two of them have achieved the great prize of a major title. On the Ryder Cup battlefield they waxed strong in each other's company, producing all the nerve and the panache you would ever want to see.

Now, though, they seem to be back in the world of chance and speculation. Donald, who in the past has been so restive over claims that a great golfer can only properly define himself while fighting for a major crown, talks of a possible happy omen – his discovery of an old 1-iron, the club Ben Hogan used to force a winning play-off at Merion 63 years ago. Rose says that he has done the required work – and that he is ready. McIlroy claims that rain has softened the course to his best requirements.

Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia desperately seeks to repair the damage caused by his hapless insulting of Tiger Woods.

For the pick of European golf the old American fortress can rarely have seemed less like a comfort zone.