Given a huge boost by the advent of the Race to Dubai and looking stronger than ever, European golf needs its top players to step up to the mark in the World Golf Championships. Since the WGC was introduced 10 years ago only three of the 30 events have produced European winners, and with Tiger Woods back in action in the CA Championships at Doral's Blue Monster course today the expectation are of more American dominance.
Woods has scored 15 of the 20 US victories so far, and of the paltry three recorded by Europeans to date, only Darren Clarke's win in the Bridgestone Invitational back in 2003 came in a stroke play event. A European success is long overdue and that fact will not be lost on the likes of Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter when they set out to tackle Miami's Blue Monster.
It is one of the most open WGC events for a long time, especially as there is still a question mark over Woods. He has now had two weeks to eliminate the problem which denied him a winning return from his eight-month lay-off, when over protecting his reconstructed left knee caused him to spray shots right of target in the Arizona desert. I expect to see a different Tiger over the next four days, and as he already has three wins to his credit at the Blue Monster for me he will start as favourite.
The big hitters will have an advantage. The Bermuda rough makes it difficult to control the ball for long approach shots, although it is a lot easier to negotiate with short irons meaning players who get the most length off the tee can capitalise. This is especially true towards the end of the round, when championships are so often decided on the final day. The 372-yard 16th invites long drives across the dog leg to bring the green within reach. Then the dramatic 467-yard 18th, usually played into the wind, features a carry over water from the tee which rewards the bravest drives, but still leaves a demanding second shot to a green guarded on the left by water. Those baling out right have only a slim chance of reaching the putting surface and this is why the Blue Monster produces exciting finishes.
The course holds no fears for the defending champion Jeff Ogilvy who is eyeing a third victory this year following wins in the Mercedes Benz Championship in Hawaii and the WGC-Accenture Match Play event. If tee to green accuracy coupled with imagination was enough to win tournaments, Sergio Garcia would have no equal. Swinging beautifully, hitting the ball a long way, and comfortably the most creative iron player out there, Garcia is my idea of an old fashioned golfer.
He hits so many fades and draws, changing the trajectory of each shot, and reminds me a little of Lee Trevino in the way he uses his irons to get the best out of his round. The problem for Sergio is that his putting, which had been showing signs of improvement, is letting him down again. He hit more greens in regulation than anyone else at the Honda Classic last week where he finished tied for 13th place, dragged down by the second worst putts-per-round average of 31.5.
He simply is not confident with putts of five to 10 feet when his stroke goes back inside very quickly with the result that, through impact, it sends the ball shooting left off the putter head. With the long putts he manages to get away with it, but the problem catches up with him on the shorter ones. Last year he won the Players' Championship despite putting well in only one round, but generally speaking you cannot win these days if you do not hole putts throughout, and I just hope Sergio can turn things round at Doral. He is the world No 2, and if he could sort out his putting he would be incredibly hard to beat.
It is nothing out of the ordinary to see the American media getting into a golfing frenzy, but for a change the subject of their fascination is non-American. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy is wowing the US. He has been impressive in his two appearances on American soil so far, although his aggressive style of play, fashioned by a complete lack of fear based on wonderful skill and youthful exuberance, does hurt him from time to time.
Once he gets the balance right, and supports his talent by developing his ability to select the correct shots at crucial times, he will be a major contender. As of yet, I have not seen a No 1 player in the world who did not play smart golf. Tiger is still out on his own, and his strongest assets are his mind, his discipline, his impeccable shot selection ability and his remarkable putting skills. For more than a decade he has maintained an unbelievable standard on the greens, although if his standard slips, he can become vulnerable.
Greg Norman was the only player I have seen who could win a tournament without holing many putts, because he was one of the best drivers of a ball of all time. Only Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino could, perhaps, match him in that department, and when his iron play was at its best he peppered the hole. There isn't anyone out there right now who can do that. Garcia is the closest by a long way, but generally you must putt well, and make good shot selections, to win these days.
It's going to be fascinating to see how Tiger performs in his latest tussle with the Blue Monster and I'm convinced he will be in contention on Sunday, although it is high time the Europeans took the WGC by the scruff of the neck. firstname.lastname@example.org