American youngsters make their mark ahead of Ryder Cup

The rising generation of Americans dominated the 2017 season after Spaniard Sergio Garcia’s memorable Masters triumph, laying down a marker ahead of next year’s Ryder Cup in Paris.

Brooks Koepka, 27, claimed the US Open title, before Jordan Spieth’s third major crown at the British Open and his fellow 24-year-old Justin Thomas’ breakthrough victory at the USPGA Championship.

Add in world number one Dustin Johnson, and United States Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk has a formidable team more than capable of repeating October’s Presidents Cup thrashing of the Internationals.

The US are the favourites to retain the trophy come next September at Golf National, but they haven’t won on European soil since 1993 at The Belfry.

“We have 25 years of scars to overcome,” Furyk said in Paris in October.

“I don’t want (them) going in there being overconfident that they are the greatest team. I want them going in with a chip on their shoulder that they have something to prove.”

Europe’s stars had a mixed season, although 37-year-old Garcia produced the year’s stand-out moment by finally ending his wait for a major title by edging out Justin Rose in a thrilling Masters play-off back in April.

Garcia’s compatriot Jon Rahm stole a few headlines by rising to world number four in his first full season as a professional, but four-time major winner Rory McIlroy was plagued by injuries and loss of form as he failed to win an event for the first year since 2008.

American players received most of the plaudits for their major-winning exploits, but Europeans like Tyrrell Hatton, Rafael Cabrera Bello and Paul Casey slid slightly under the radar to finish 2017 inside the world’s top 20.

“You tell me a time where there’s been 11 Europeans in the top 21 in the world,” said Europe’s Ryder Cup skipper Thomas Bjorn.

“It might have happened but it’s not something that you see very often.

“So that’s a very strong European team.”

– Tiger’s back, again –

A year that began with a failed attempted injury comeback from Tiger Woods, ended with the 14-time major champion starting another return.

The 41-year-old pulled out of February’s Dubai Desert Classic with a back injury, but after surgery and an appearance as a Presidents Cup vice-captain, he produced a promising performance in the Bahamas earlier this month.

“I knew I was going to be able to play all four rounds, that wasn’t going to be an issue,” said Woods, who also missed all of the 2015-16 season with back trouble, after finishing tied-ninth at the Hero World Challenge.
“I was still scratchy with my irons. I drove it pretty good all week, made some good putts.”

The chances of Woods adding to his major tally — and reviving his bid to chase down Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 titles — will become clearer when he returns to Augusta National for the Masters, where he has 11 top-five finishes including four green jackets.

A first major triumph since the 2008 US Open may seem a long way off but Woods could still be a force to be reckoned with if fully fit — he won five PGA Tour titles and reclaimed the world number one spot in 2013 when he last managed a full season.

– Thompson heartbreak sparks change –

Lexi Thompson suffered an agonising loss in the first women’s major of the year at the ANA Inspiration in April, as she was handed a four-stroke penalty with only six holes remaining after a TV viewer spotted an infringement from the third round.

Golf’s authorities finally changed the rules at the end of the year to stop viewers from calling in from home to alert referees to possible penalties.

American Thompson still only lost to South Korea’s Ryu So-yeon in a play-off, so she would have won a second major title under the new rules even if the mistake was noticed, as she would not have been given the additional two-shot penalty for signing the wrong scorecard.

It was an unsavoury moment reminiscent of the 2016 men’s US Open, when Dustin Johnson was forced to play the closing holes of his victory not knowing whether or not he would be hit with a penalty at the end of the tournament.

The 22-year-old Thompson finished 2017 in style, though, going four matches unbeaten as the US retained the Solheim Cup.

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