Tiger Woods' former coach Hank Hainey has low expectations for those from across the Pond
CHANGED days indeed. While there was a time, not so very long ago, when American golfers dominated what so many of their compatriots persist in calling the "British" Open - five of the first six "champion golfers of the year" in this century hailed from the US of A - the more recent past has been less kind to Uncle Sam's nephews. Since Tiger Woods lifted the Claret Jug for the third time at Hoylake in 2006, only Stewart Cink has spirited the famous old trophy back across the Atlantic, a trend that many expert judges feel will continue later this week when the 140th version of golf's oldest and most important major takes place at Royal St George's.
"I will be totally surprised if an American wins the Open this week," contends Hank Haney, who has coached two men, Woods and Mark O'Meara, to a total of eight major victories. "I expect one of the top European players to win at Sandwich.
"In the past, when Americans did win the Open it was invariably because we simply had better players. But that isn't the case any more. Now, the Europeans have more talent. So it will be a pretty large upset if an American does win this week. I mean, what do we have, six players in the top 15?"
That statistic becomes even more alarming because two of those six, Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, are over 40 and so well past the stage of significant improvement. A bigger question, however, is whether the present situation is but a cyclical dip in US fortunes or the start of a long-term decline. And if it is the latter, what or who is to blame?
Four years ago, Haney - who once had a spell as coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas - was highly critical of the US college golf system in Golf Digest. And to hear him talk now, nothing much has changed since.
"All I did was point out that college players too often don't get real coaching," he sighs. "They don't really go to school either. So both their education and their golf get compromised.
"They go to classes for maybe three hours a day, study for two more hours, then play golf the rest of the day. So, in terms of their golf, they are losing five hours of practice time every day. You can't do that every day for four years and end up being competitive.
"Even when they are playing and practising, they are too often not getting any better. In fact, the colleges invariably have no real interest in long-term improvement for these kids. For the school it is all about scoring well today. So there is no chance of them telling a student to go away and work on his technique so that he will be a better player 18 months down the road. That just doesn't happen."Too often, of course, the problem is that the coaches are not teachers. They are bus drivers who take the kids to tournaments. Yes, they recruit. But after that they don't actually do any real coaching. For the vast majority, 'coach' is a complete misnomer.
"If I was advising a promising youngster I'd still tell him to go to college - but only until he knows he is good enough to play the PGA Tour. If he never reaches that stage he will still have a degree to fall back on. Not going to college would be the best way to produce better golfers, but it isn't, of course, the best way to create productive people for society.
"So, if American golf is in permanent decline - and I don't think it is - then the blame would have to fall in the lap of the college system. There's nothing else we can blame. In terms of improving their techniques, way too many kids are treading water for four years in college. Those colleges are the breeding grounds for the PGA Tour, so if we are getting worse that system has to be at fault."
On the other side of the same coin, Haney sees the emergence of so many talented players from Europe, Asia and Australia as merely the inevitable result of three key factors.
"Europe is almost totally dominant right now," he says. "Some of that is cyclical. But, if you think about it, all you need to be successful is opportunity - golf courses to play on, numbers - people playing the game, and coaching. Those are the three ingredients.
"Not too long ago, much of the world outside of the US had the first two, but not the third. Now they do. There are great coaches all over the world now. Maybe not in China yet, but that will happen. But European players don't have to go to America to get good coaching now. They can get that at home; they have caught up.
"Given that fact, who is on top is almost wholly down to cycles. And we are in a cycle now where the Europeans are leading. That will change though."
Haney should know, of course. Between 2003 and 2010, he got an up-close-and-personal view of the man who has been the dominant player over the last decade and a half. Now, like everyone else, he is eagerly awaiting the return of the Tiger, whenever that may be, and wondering how well the great man will be able to perform if and when he does reappear on tour.
"Tiger isn't the best player right now," says Haney, ever the pragmatist. "Not right this minute. He isn't even a player at the moment. And whether he will be again is up for debate. There are questions to be answered. Can his body stand up to the practice he is going to have to do? That's doubtful at best. In the last three years and a bit, he has missed maybe 15 months of playing time.
"Somehow, he is going to have to get into a condition that allows him to play and practise a lot in order to get his game back. And I mean a lot, not a couple of weeks or three or four events; he's got to play a lot of golf. Can his body do that? We'll see."The other question, of course, is whether or not he still has the passion for it. So much has gone on in his life. But if he still has the drive and his body holds up, there is no reason why he won't get back to being the best player again. Those are pretty big factors though."
As for the man who looks most likely to assume Tiger's mantle atop the world of golf, Haney isn't quite ready to hail Rory McIlroy as the "next Woods".
"I'm not sure how I rate Rory's win at the US Open, to be honest," he shrugs. "I suspect everyone made such a big deal of it because they like him so much. He is a great young talent, but everything went his way at Congressional. It looked a lot like any other PGA Tour event so I'm not sure what was so special about it. The rough wasn't that deep and the greens were really soft. That's not a great combination, especially for the US Open. I don't rate Rory's performance - good as it was - with Tiger winning by 15 at Pebble Beach in 2000. There's no comparison, as Rory said himself.
"It was impressive though. Rory still had to deal with all the pressure that comes with a major. He came back so well after what happened to him at Augusta. I like his attitude more than anything. There is no doubt that he is good for golf. He is what the game needs, an attractive young guy with loads of potential.
"So it was nice to see him come through. I love his swing. He has incredible speed through impact and is just so free and uninhibited. His positions are nice, but that freedom is the most attractive aspect of his method. Plus, he is incredibly long, which is what you have to be in today's game. It is such an advantage on the courses the professionals play these days. And Rory can really send it."
Still, it remains to be seen whether those qualities will lead to a second major title in succession for the young Ulsterman. And Haney isn't about to make any firm predictions.
"Something special always happens at majors," he contends. "That's just the way it is. At Augusta this year people were asking me who was going to win. My answer was 'the guy who makes something special happen'. And that guy was Charl Schwartzel. On the last day he chipped in at the first for a birdie, then two holes later, holed out a full wedge. OK, there's your winner. But you can't predict those things.
"The same was true at the US Open. Rory had something special happen to him; he played the best week of golf he has ever played in his life. He's a great player, but if you gave 50 other guys the best week of their lives then any one of them would win too.
"Admittedly, that is less true at the Open, where the weather is a bigger factor. If the conditions are poor, you can eliminate more guys. I love the courses and all the different shots the players have to hit, though. It's a type of golf we don't see the rest of the year. That's what makes it so exciting."
Let's hope so.