Not for more than 100 years have there been as many good professional golfers from England as there are now. You have to go back to the days of the professionals J.H. Taylor, one of the Great Triumvirate, and Jack White, along with Harold Hilton, the amateur from Royal Liverpool, to find so many good golfers emerging from good old Blighty at the same time.
Since then, English golf has had its share of champions, but they were mostly singular efforts: Max Faulkner, Peter Alliss and Tony Jacklin come to mind. Now, 10 years after Nick Faldo won the last of his six majors at the 1996 Masters, a sextet of young English players is vying to take its place atop the golf world, more emphatically than at any time since the turn of the 20th century. Land of Hope and Glory is their anthem, St. George their patron saint, London, city of black taxis and red buses, their capital.
Leading the group is Luke Donald, who won the Honda Classic in March. He is followed by Paul Casey, who like Donald, was schooled in England but polished at a U.S. university. Nick Dougherty is the youngest of the group and plies his trade on the European Tour. David Howell is the most easy-going. Justin Rose, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but grew up in southern England, was the first to come to national attention when he finished fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale, a few days before his 18th birthday. Rounding out the group is Ian Poulter, who is becoming as well known for his peacock sense of dress and his hairstyles as his overwhelming self-belief and his daring playing style.
All are young; all are climbing quickly. Just six years ago, England had just two men among the top 100 in the world, Faldo and Jamie Spence. As of May 2006, 11 Englishmen were in the top 100. But the future lies with this group of six.
“I think that once one or two players start playing well it kind of drags others along with them,” says Donald, the most successful of the bunch, ranked 10th in the world. “We look at that and say, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ It goes in cycles and it makes us raise our game.”
The group’s coming-out party was the 2004 Ryder Cup, where Donald, Casey, Howell and Poulter helped Europe rout the U.S. Now they are looking for individual success, which they have experienced at increasingly higher levels—and most are trying to do so in the U.S. Only Casey and Dougherty are not PGA Tour members, and even so, Casey lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
No matter where they play, the collective goal is to be the best in the world. Howell, for example, pulled away from Tiger Woods in the final round to win the HSBC Champions Tournament last November. “I’m not really intimidated by anybody,” Howell says. “I’m better than a few and not as good as a few others. I can stand on the tee with anybody and look them in the eye.”
Howell’s sure attitude exemplifies the group, which could be described as new English in character rather than old English. Old English golfers may have damned themselves with faint praise and blushed when praised by others. New English golfers believe in themselves and don’t mind who knows that.
Sometimes that can cause trouble, as when Paul Casey made disparaging comments following the Ryder Cup, saying that he hated the American team. Still, their approach is one that is needed to reach their high-reaching goals.
“What we’ve got is a self-belief,” says Poulter, who is talking just after shooting 68 in the second round of the Players Championship. “I had a good round today, but I am not here to finish third or fourth or 11th. I came here to win. I know I’m good enough to do so.” He stares at his interrogator as speaks, not so much for etiquette but more to get across this message: “Don’t you dare doubt me.”SIX TO WATCH
At Arizona State, Paul Casey broke Phil Mickelson’s school single-season scoring average and Tiger Woods’ Pac-10 Championship scoring record. Since turning pro, he has made more headlines for his words than for his five worldwide wins.
Strengths: Power, great self-confidence
Weakness: A rare conversational frankness
Luke Donald is arguably the best player in the world under 30, and already has won twice on the PGA Tour. With an even demeanor and a deadly iron game, Donald has the game to win majors.
Strengths: Ice-cool temperament, accuracy, course management
Weakness: Lack of distance
Nick Dougherty is the youngest of the six. He grew up playing the Faldo Junior Series, where the namesake star recognized Dougherty’s potential and became his mentor.
Strength: Consistency on the course
Weakness: Has he overcome the playboy lifestyle he liked a few years ago?
David Howell’s late success makes him a relative newcomer into the top ranks of golf. His win over Woods last fall has helped propelled him atop the European Tour’s Order of Merit.
Strength: Wonderful putter
Weakness: Inexperience at the highest level
It’s hard not to recognize Ian Poulter, whether from his outrageous hair or his Technicolor wardrobe, of which Doug Sanders would be proud. Just remember: He has to be good to wear clothes like that.
Strength: Remarkable self-belief
Weakness: Does not hole enough putts
Justin Rose has been around so long that it is hard to believe he will turn 27 at the end of July. But after several slow years, he is beginning to fulfill the promise he showed in finishing fourth at the 1998 Open as a 17-year-old.
Strength: Natural ability that took him to a high level when he was young
Weakness: May have happened too soon for him