Slump buster

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. – The last time a European hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy there were 48 states in the union (USA, not EU). The price of a gallon of gas was $.08, and the preferred method of settling things at the season’s final major was match play.

Seventy-eight years down the line the union has expanded; the price of gas has exploded and the fact that a European has not won a PGA Championship since Tommy Armour in 1930 is inexplicable, if not unimaginable.

Maybe it’s a statistical anomaly, like Tiger Woods’ Ryder Cup record or Corey Pavin. Maybe it’s the aerial style of play required to negotiate over-watered, rough-lined PGA venues.

Either way, if recent history and an early leaderboard here at Royal Oakland Hills is any indication, the Europeans are poised to jump off the PGA schnied.

There are 78 reasons not to like a Euro come Sunday here in the shadow of Motor City. Only one reason to dismiss the odds – momentum.

The Continent ran the table at Royal Birkdale, taking the top seven spots at golf’s oldest championship. The leaderboard at the Open Championship read like a meeting of the European Union – Padraig Harrington (Ireland), Ian Poulter (England) and Henrik Stenson (Sweden) finished first, second and tied for third, respectively.

Last week at Firestone, the final top-10 tally included two Englishmen (Lee Westwood, Paul Casey), a Spaniard (Miguel Angel Jimenez) and a Northern Irishman (Darren Clarke).

“It’s amazing that a European has not won in such a long time,” said Westwood, who played on the 2004 European Ryder Cup team at Oakland Hills. “When you consider the strength of European golf, especially over the last few years. The likes of Nick Faldo and Seve and Woosie and Bernhard and Sam and people like that. Monty had a good chance at a couple and it’s amazing that none of us would win.”

There’s also Oakland Hills. They say one can only have painful association with memories. Not the case for the dozen Europeans who thumped the United States on the Donald Ross gem in 2004. The Europeans led by five points after the first day, six after Day 2 and headed back across the pond with a nine-point rout.

On Thursday, it was one of Europe’s little-known Ryder Cup stars, something of an oxymoron on a team that almost always enjoys an embarrassment of riches from the far side of the bench, who climbed the quickest and highest.

Robert Karlsson, a 6-foot-5 soulful type from Malm, Sweden, made easy work of the “Monster.” Karlsson double bogeyed his first hole, played the rest of the way in 4 under and shares the first-round lead with Singh – Jeev Milkha, not Vijay.

“He’s working real hard on staying patient,” said Johan Elliot, Karlsson’s manager with Sportyard. “Ask Faldo, when he came out at 18, 19 years old he was a proper golfer. But in everybody’s eyes he’s underachieved until this point.”

Karlsson’s is a microcosm of the Euro surge in 2008. He’s finished in the top 10 in the season’s first three majors, hasn’t missed a cut in 11 events and, before his tie for 20th last week in Firestone, his worst finish since March is a tie for 13th at the Open de France.

Second-graders call it monkey see, monkey do. In NASCAR it’s called drafting. Whatever the metaphor, the Europeans do it well. One Team Europe member plays well, the rest race to join him.

“It has shifted maybe a little bit,” Karlsson said. “With Padraig winning a couple, when he does it, it helps other players as well to see that it’s possible.”

Harrington peeled the seal from Europe’s major vault, winning consecutive Open Championships. On Thursday at the PGA it appeared the endearing Irishman is intent on filling the Wanamaker Trophy with lady birds.

Despite a trio of sloppy bogeys late, Harrington is in a large group at 1 over and well within reach of the Sidelined Tiger Slam.

Harrington’s first British Open was for the whole of Ireland. The second, he said, was for himself. A PGA crown would be a victory lap for the entire Continent.

“They are all friends and they edge each other on,” Elliot said. “When one of them wins, it opens a lot of doors in their heads.”

The PGA may be Glory’s Last Shot and America’s last stronghold. A rare bastion of red, white and blue dominance in an ever shrinking golf universe.

Seventy-eight years says it will probably stay that way. A field full of fearless Europeans riding a wave that seems building toward September’s Ryder Cup suggests otherwise.

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