Amazing how 31 days can lift the mood. Yet after just one month of the year there is much to be positive about the state of golf on this side of the Atlantic. Here are five reasons for European golf fans to be cheerful for the rest of 2018:
5. Kemp shows it’s not too late.
Finally, the good-news story of the month goes to England’s John Kemp. For 30 years he was happy to be a proper amateur in every sense of the word. Unlike the vast majority of players in the amateur ranks funded by golf associations – professional amateurs – Kemp held down a full-time job but still managed to play amateur golf at the highest level.
The Woburn Golf Club member qualified for and played in two British Opens, won three British Mid-Amateur Championships, the English Mid-Amateur, the Sunningdale Foursomes and many other tournaments. He decided to enter the 2018 European Senior Tour Qualifying School on a whim to see if his game was good enough to play with Europe’s over-50s. It is.
Kemp took the second of five cards and will play this year’s European senior circuit, now called the Staysure Tour. One of those events will be on his home course. The Travis Perkins Masters is held over Woburn’s Dukes course. Don’t be surprised if the quiet, unassuming Englishman makes some noise this year.
4. Chinese and Indian players excelling
Ernie Els predicted back in 2008 that Indian and Chinese golfers would be major influencers on golf’s world stage. Wins for 22-year-old Li Haotong and Shubhankar Sharma, 21, in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and Maybank Championship prove The Big Easy is a pretty good soothsayer. Haotong took down McIlroy to win in Dubai. Sharma stormed home with a closing 62. Each man has won twice on the European Tour. Haotong will play in this year’s Masters while Sharma is in the British Open. Will they lead the vanguard in their home countries by becoming future major winners? It’s going to be fun to find out.
3. Tommy Fleetwood is the real deal.
Despite Fleetwood ending the 2017 European Tour as European No. 1, there were small doubts that he might be a flash in the pan. Other players have followed up banner years by dropping off the radar. Not Fleetwood. He proved he’s the real deal with his Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship victory. To outscore McIlroy and Dustin Johnson on Day One, and then shoot 30 on the back nine on Sunday to defend his title, shows Fleetwood has the game to contend for major titles.
2. European Tour golf is quicker than the PGA Tour.
The conclusion of the Farmers Insurance Open proved yet again that pace of play in Europe is quicker than the PGA Tour. Six hours for Alex Noren, Ryan Palmer and J.B. Holmes to complete the final round, punctuated by Holmes’ disgraceful 4 minutes, 10 seconds to play his second to the 18th, was a poor advert for the game.
While play could be a lot quicker in Europe, it never reaches the Farmers Insurance nadir. That’s not just my take, but the opinion of players who play both tours. Ask the PGA Tour-based Europeans and they’ll tell you European Tour officials are more strident on pace of play than PGA Tour officials. If the Holmes incident wasn’t final proof that professional golf needs a shot clock – something I’ve been promoting for 20 years – then I don’t know what is.
1. Rory’s definitely back.
Fears Rory McIlory would continue to suffer from a poor 2017 season didn’t take long to evaporate. Third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and second in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic proved the former World No. 1 made the right move to take a three-month break following last October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
McIlroy looked like he’d never been away. More importantly, he’s noticeably fitter than at any point in his life. That was obvious from the moment he walked into the interview room for his pre-tournament press conference in Abu Dhabi. I’ve been watching McIlroy compete since he was 14, playing in the 2004 British Boys’ Championship at Royal Liverpool. I did a double take when he walked into the room. He’s more athletic looking than I’ve ever seen him. Seems he’s really serious about making the next 10 years of his career better than the previous decade. That’s fantastic news. Gwk