Lehman bullish even as generation gap weakens Americans

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It would not be overstating matters to suggest that the Americans made their most striking impact on the Old Course this week in the final sartorial enormity perpetrated by John Daly. His trousers yesterday comprised stars down one ham, and stripes down the other, so introducing a degree of literalism to the fact that American national pride had taken a back seat at the home of golf.

Nobody, in fairness, could keep up with the South African champion. But the Americans were so anonymous that they even succeeded in imparting a degree of prescience to Ian Poulter. Admittedly, the optimism he had expressed on his own account proved thoroughly misplaced, but that provides pretty cold comfort to those Americans provoked by his ebullient predictions of a golden decade for European golf.

For while Colin Montgomerie accumulated 292 reasons for looking away from the leaderboard, as Ryder Cup captain he can only have been heartened to see the scores being posted by the likes of Martin Kaymer and Henrik Stenson. The best the Americans could manage, in contrast, was a tie for seventh for Sean O'Hair and Nick Watney. Montgomerie can only have enjoyed the defensive response of Tiger Woods, when asked about the Europeans clustering towards the lead. "I haven't even looked," he shrugged. "We all know them as just players."

For his information, then, this was the first time in 41 years that the final round began without one of his compatriots among the top five on the leaderboard. Ten of the top 19 in the world rankings are European; of the six Americans among them, moreover, only Anthony Kim is in his twenties. As Poulter observed, American hopes at the moment tend to be vested largely in experience, in the likes of Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk. Woods himself, of course, is no youngster at 34.

Sure enough, this year the Europeans have plundered half a dozen prizes already on the American circuit. At a banquet here on Tuesday, Lee Westwood teased the PGA commissioner, Tim Finchem, from the podium. "It was lovely to see an American win on your tour," he smirked, referring to Stricker's success at the John Deere Classic – only the third home win from 11 events since May. Poulter reckons that a 15-year gap divides Mickelson's generation from any eligible heirs, and that Europe has the men to take advantage, right here, right now.

Perhaps the best American shot of the day seemed to support Poulter's thesis, played as it was by a man of 51 off the final tee. But after rolling in his eagle from barely a foot, to finish four-under for the tournament, Tom Lehman turned those icy blue eyes unblinkingly towards the Ryder Cup.

"I hope he lives to regret those words," the 1996 champion said. "I'd love to see him regret them in early October, especially. I'd love to be a young guy playing him in October. I wish I was a young guy, I wish I could play him."

Lehman is instead one of Corey Pavin's assistant captains and there was corresponding defiance in his outlook. "We have a lot of very experienced, phenomenal players, and young guys too, like Hunter Mahan, who people don't pay attention to, who are really great players. I think with the format of a Ryder Cup, with the team thing – as you saw in Louisville – their lights really shine. They're very aggressive players, too. You've got Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, guys who don't care where the pin is, they go at it. And that's what you need to win Ryder Cups.

"You have to take your hat off to the quality in Europe. Ian Poulter can say what he says because he's a really talented player. He calls it like he sees it, and I respect his honesty. They'll be tough to beat. But there's a bunch of US guys too. They'll have something to prove and they're very talented themselves."

Having said all that, Lehman did acknowledge a hiatus behind his own generation. "I think the American college system is the greatest training ground in golf, for up-and-coming professionals," he said. "But more and more, it's kids from all over the world. And that may not leave as much opportunity for American kids. I don't think there's any lack of talent. I think it's more a lack of experience. And, with experience, you'll see guys stepping up."

Those who did make a marginal impression here, certainly, are still cutting their teeth: O'Hair, Watney, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton, JB Holmes. It would be foolish to leap to melodramatic conclusions. Purely, in terms of morale, however, it seems legitimate to perceive a shift in momentum. The claret jug, after all, had been exported across the Atlantic seven times over the previous decade; and after six of the past eight Opens staged in Fife.

And Lehman made no bones about it. If you ever want to play great golf, you want to do it here. "This is my favourite place on Earth," he said. "There is no golf tournament on the planet like an Open at St Andrews. If I had one last day to live, I would come here and play golf."

There were Americans here with rather more time on their side. For now, however, their young dreams of the Old Course had become a nightmare beyond the ken of even Daly's tailor.