Power Shift: International Golfers Are Taking Over
Beware of foreign golfers. They are taking over.
For only the second time in history, no American is in possession of one of the four major golf championships.
When the relatively unknown South African, Charl Schwartzel, finished with an unprecedented four straight birdies to win the 75th Masters last Sunday, he completed the foreign domination of these most prestigious of all golf tournaments. His amazing victory follows the 2010 triumphs by his fellow countryman, Louis Oosthuizen, in the British Open; Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell in the United States Open, and Germany’s Martin Kaymer in the PGA Championship.
Each of the four major championships was won by a foreign golfer in 1994, marking the only other time that no American held at least one of these titles since the first Masters in 1934 completed the quartet of majors.
Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain won the Masters 17 years ago and Ernie Els of South Africa took the U.S.Open in a three-man playoff. Then Nick Price of Zimbabwe won both the British Open and the PGA Championship to complete a foreign sweep in 1994.
Had it not been for Schwartzel’s unique surge to victory a week ago when he birdied 15 through 18 (holes 69—72), some other foreign golfer would undoubtedly have won the Masters. That is because two Australians, Adam Scott and Jason Day, ended up tied for second, two shots back of the South African. In fact, Scott was leading and appeared headed for the green jacket until Schwartzel went on his tear to the wire.
The fact that Tiger Woods was up there within range presented little threat by the time he finished.
The four-time Masters champion, trying to climb back to his once exalted position as king of the hill, had a superb front nine of 5-under 31 on Sunday, a mediocre back nine and still suffered from a troublesome game around and on the greens. He ended up tied for fourth with an Australian, Geoff Ogilvy, and an Englishman, Luke Donald.
Angel Cabrera of Argentina, who won the 2009 Masters, finished seventh so that Tiger Woods was the only American in the top seven at this first major of the season.
There were only 21 Americans among the 49 golfers who made the cut to play in the third and final rounds of the Masters and only seven of them finished in the top 20. Even the low amateur award went to the 19-year-old Japanese, Hideki Matsuyama, who finished in an eight-way tie for 27th as did the defending champion, Phil Mickelson.
Remember Rory McIlroy? He is the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland who captivated fans by leading the Masters for exactly three and one half rounds. By then he had won over millions of fans who were rooting for him to continue on to victory. But he was stumbling through the front nine on Sunday. Then everything fell apart when he hooked his drive into the woods left of the tenth fairway. His ball ended up between a couple of cabins and Rory suffered a triple bogey 7 on the tenth. That ended his chances.
But McIlroy, winner of the Wells Fargo tourney (former Wachovia) at Quail Hollow in Charlotte last year, handled the disaster quite well. Only time will tell if the young man recovers fully and eventually wins one or more majors as most people expect him to do. He is certainly one of those very strong and exciting foreign golfers in the top ranks of the world’s best these days.
If there has been any question in the minds of golf fans around the world in recent months, the four most recent major championships prove rather conclusively that the United States no longer dominates this sport. These four impressive victories in the majors are but the icing on the cake as golfers from overseas have been doing very well in many other PGA Tour official events, including the most important of the non major events.
Also, while Tiger Woods kept slipping down the world rankings in recent months and Phil Mickelson could not move up, it was a couple of European golfers, Lee Westwood of England and Martin Kaymer of Germany, who each took the No. 1 spot for a short spell since the first of this year.
Six of the PGA Tour events so far this year were won by foreign golfers, including the Masters. Luke Donald won the Accenture Match Play Championship tourney in Arizona in February, the first of the year’s World Golf Championship competitions. Scotland’s Martin Laird took the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida, as difficult a course as the pros play before getting to Augusta National for the Masters.
Then there is The Players Championship, the tournament that PGA Tour officials and many players refer to as “the fifth major.” This big title was taken last year by another South African, Tim Clark, who will defend on the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, Florida, May 12-15.
And don’t ever forget the Ryder Cup. The United States teams have won the USA-vs.-Europe competition only once in the last five biennial meetings and only twice in the last eight contests.
Ever since a European team replaced a Great Britain and Ireland team as our opponent for the Ryder Cup in 1979, there have been 16 matches. The USA beat Europe in the first three of those tests. But since then, Europe has taken the Ryder Cup nine out of 13 matches.
United States golfers have a job on their hands to get back on top in the sport. The talent may be there among some of our young pros. But golfers from overseas seem more determined and not in the least intimidated by Tiger Woods and other American pros.
Gary Player pointed numerous young South Africans such as Ernie Els and Retief Goosen toward championship caliber performances. Now it is Els, with his foundation in South Africa, who has schooled the likes of Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Louis Oosthuizen, each of whom has won a major tournament.
The current bunch of excellent Australian golfers all grew up worshipping Greg Norman, their idol. Some of them may well come close to achieving Norman’s successes.
For years, Seve Ballesteros has been the inspiration for European golfers including numerous successful Spanish pros in particular.
The 54-year-old Spaniard, fighting his way back from the ravages of a malignant brain tumor, was years ago the single most important driving force behind changing the Ryder Cup format to a European team in place of just a Great Britain and Ireland team. Ballesteros is a five-time winner of major championships.
At one point during the final round of the Masters last Sunday, David Feherty, the CBS golf commentator who is a native of Northern Ireland, made the observation that all continents except Antarctica were represented on the leaderboard. He was looking at a leaderboard that included Charl Schwartzel from Africa, Adam Scott and Jason Day from Australia, Luke Donald from Europe, Angel Cabrera from South America, K.J.Choi from Asia and Tiger Woods from North America.
There has been a huge power shift in golf. If this does not inspire young American golfers to try harder the United States may wind up behind the rest of the world for some time.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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