John Huggan: Overwhelmed by that sinking feeling

Jordan Spieth of the United States dons the green jacket after he won the 2015 Masters in April. Picture: Getty
Jordan Spieth of the United States dons the green jacket after he won the 2015 Masters in April. Picture: Getty
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The last putt on the last day of the last major championship always brings with it a feeling of melancholy bordering on depression. Not for a ludicrous eight months will we again get to watch any truly meaningful golf, when the now sadly geriatric “Big Three” of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus tee-off at Augusta National to signal the start of another Masters – American golf’s so-called “rite of spring”.

Until then, all we have to look forward to is a trio of cups: Walker, Solheim and Presidents, the meaningless money-grabs also known as the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai and – a rare highlight – an Australian Open defended by the player of 2015, Jordan Spieth. Quite apart from finishing first in two of golf’s four most important events, the 22-year-old Texan was a cumulative – and record-breaking – 54 under par for the 16 rounds he played over Augusta National, Chambers Bay, the Old Course at St Andrews and Whistling Straits. As a measure of just how good that is, the newly minted USPGA champion, Jason Day, finished second on the 18-strong unofficial list, 19 shots behind.

Australia's Jason Day with the trophy after winning the USPGA Championship earlier this month. Picture: AP

Australia's Jason Day with the trophy after winning the USPGA Championship earlier this month. Picture: AP

Indeed, while the major championships do not always provide a wholly accurate picture of what is happening at the sharp end of the game in a given season, this year three of the four were won by the two men who hit the fewest number of shots overall. All of which only provokes sympathy for Justin Rose. The Englishman, US Open champion in 2013, was 34 under par – just one shot behind Day – yet came away with nothing other than a pile of cash and a nod of admiration for shooting the fourth-best aggregate seen in the past 30 years.

The same, to only a slightly lesser extent, can be said of the enigmatic Dustin Johnson, who was five shots behind Rose. Capable of the most stunning play one minute and the most mediocre rubbish the next, Johnson’s year in the majors was accurately summarised by his play in the last round of the USPGA a week ago. After opening with a quadruple-bogey 8, the 31-year-old South Carolinian made two more bogeys over the next 17 holes yet still got round in 69 (three under par) to finish tied for seventh.

Consistency, of course, has always been the most overrated quality in golf. Very soon, no one will recall how well Rose performed in 2015. But Zach Johnson – who failed to qualify for the weekend at Whistling Straits – will forever be remembered as the man who won the Open Championship at the Home of Golf. Which is why three missed cuts and a win is surely – and ironically – more satisfying than, say, the four top-five finishes recorded by Rickie Fowler last year. Winning is everything.

But is it? Last Sunday evening, Spieth was perhaps understandably looking far from devastated at his “failure” to complete what would inevitably been called the American Slam. He had played well – he was the first man ever to shoot 17 under par for 72 holes in any major and not win – and had been beaten by the better man. No shame in that. Plus, he had the added bonus and consolation of ascending to the No.1 ranking spot in the world. Amazingly, the Masters and US Open champion is only the second American this century – Tiger Woods the other – to achieve that singular feat.

Anyway, back on the “no cuts missed” list, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke will have taken note of the fact that men who will most likely form the core of his side next year at Hazeltine – Rose, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey – all performed with some distinction in the events they all want to win most.

Throw in Rory McIlroy, who we can safely assume would have played all four rounds in the Open, and Clarke will be reasonably content with the way things are looking just before the qualifying period begins in the upcoming Russian Open. The presence of those experienced figures makes the prospect of Ryder rookies like Shane Lowry, Danny Willett, Joost Luiten and, hopefully, Scotland’s Marc Warren, all making the side that bit less daunting on foreign soil.

For all that, more immediate attention will turn to the bamboozling and somewhat tedious business of the aforementioned FedEx Cup. Historically close to irrelevant, this thinly disguised month-long orgy of cash-grabbing “appearance money” is diminished by the fact that, billed as a “play-off” series, it is actually nothing of the sort. .

Much more fun will be the biennial matches between the United States and first the male amateurs of Great Britain & Ireland for the Walker Cup, then Europe’s women professionals in the Solheim Cup, then the International side made up of male professionals from everywhere except Europe.

Pathetically, the last of the three is an event so devoid of interest even the participants are hard pushed to, well, participate. Due to be held in Korea this year, the matches will inevitably be won by the US, mostly because the “home” side are even more disinterested than the “visitors”.

Sadly too for those who love top-class golf that does not involve filthy lucre, the Walker Cup appears to be a contest that is fast approaching the point where something will have to be done in order to maintain any semblance of competitiveness.

On the course the signs are just as ominous. With so many of this country’s best amateurs turning professional earlier than their American counterparts, the gap between the two sides is rapidly widening.

Two years ago at the National Golf Links on Long Island, the American side marched to an outrageously easy eight-point victory. And in 2011, aided by weather that was outrageous even by the standards of north-east Scotland, the home side only managed to scrape through by a single point at Royal Aberdeen against a US team completely out of its element. Barring similarly extreme meteorological conditions at Royal Lytham next month, it is hard to imagine anything but another comfortable win for Uncle Sam’s nephews.

As for the Solheim Cup, changes are needed there too. Although the prospect of a reasonably competitive contest is greater than in the Walker Cup, the credibility of the matches is severely damaged by the absence of so many of the best women golfers. As of this moment, only eight of the world’s top 30 players are eligible for either side (three are European), underpinning the notion that a match between South Korea (who can boast a startling 15 of the top 30) and the rest of the world would be far more interesting, entertaining and relevant. The contrast between that unlikely ideal and the second-rate reality is vast indeed.

All in all then, while it would be an obvious exaggeration to say that the golf on our screens over the next eight months will be completely devoid of incident or interest, it is also true to say that we have seen the best of it for this year. Oh well.