Rory McIlroy used to be the world’s best golfer. He bagged the No. 1 ranking by winning the Honda Classic in Florida at the start of the month. It was a dream realised. Already a major championship winner, he held off a magnificent final-day charge by Tiger Woods to claim the top spot in the world. But that was then… no longer can McIlroy say that he is the planet’s best golfer. Luke Donald has reclaimed the position. Donald’s victory in Florida’s thrillingly named Transitions Championship last weekend means he is the big dog on tour because the rankings, according to those who compile them, don’t lie. Of course they don’t.
So Britain has the two best players in the world. We also have the player ranked No. 3, Lee Westwood, and, in case it passed you by, the new world No. 8 is Justin Rose. Remember him? The boy who had his backside pinched by a giggling schoolgirl when he came fourth in the Open Championship as an amateur in 1998 is now the man who won the World Golf Championship event at Doral two weeks ago. In Olympic year we are often talking about Britain’s power in the velodrome or our achievements in rowing, but dominating golf is also very special. Our boys are cashing in on the jumbo-sized ATM that is the PGA Tour and beyond. All our home-brewed ‘big four’ need now is to add to the solitary major championship they have won between them. And in truth of course that’s no little ask.
The chance arises in a couple of weeks at the Masters. Augusta National is not a bad place to establish what Americans like to call ‘a dynasty’. McIlroy’s meltdown amid the magnolia last year actually won him admirers. He plays golf like the 19th-hole bullshitters say they do, except in the right direction and in front of thousands, not just Gerald from the food and beverage sub-committee. There was fear that he might take a long time to recover from what happened on the Sunday of the 2011 Masters, but two months later he was US Open champion. And Donald, by regaining the world No. 1 spot, has proved that he is unlikely to go away either.
It is a distinct possibility that whoever puts on the green jacket in the Butler Cabin will be British. Most will want McIlroy, but any one of the four would be further cement Britain’s reputation as a golfing superpower. In Ryder Cup year, and with the rest of Europe looking none too shabby on the fairways, that is not what the Americans will want to see.
We might be ruling European golf, but in European football we’re looking like also-rans. Not so long ago the rest of the continent groaned as three Premier League sides would take their places in the quarter-finals (and sometimes beyond) of the Champions League. Our top flight was the richest, best and most exciting in the world. Not any more. Of the last eight clubs in this season’s Champions League, one is English. That’s as many as Cyprus have got to the same stage. In the Europa League, there is not one English team.
Manchester United were beaten, home and away, by Athletic Bilbao, who ran our champions ragged. They were magnificent. If Athletic can do that to Manchester United, then how good are Real Madrid and Barcelona? Athletic are seventh in La Liga, 34 points off top spot. Where would the two Manchester clubs finish?
The Premier League can claim to be many things and ‘not being what it was’ is one if them. Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards’s waterlogged antics in Qatar the other day are a perfect parallel — full of self-importance and taking an early bath.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.