International Feel at Target

By Associated PressDecember 13, 2006, 5:00 pm
2006 Target World Challenge pres. by CountrywideTHOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- For golf at the highest level, the Target World Challenge is the final tournament of the year in the United States. It also happens to be a popular hangout for international players.
They have flown across oceans and time zones to spend a week at Sherwood Country Club as part of the PGA TOUR's silly season, although there is nothing silly about the money. Only four regular tour events have a larger purse ($5.75 million), with $1.35 million going to the winner and $170,000 for last place. That means John Daly is assured of his highest paycheck of the year.
But there is a serious picture painted in these foothills that separate concrete freeways from the Pacific Ocean.
The 16-man field is determined largely by the world rankings, and it no longer is surprising to see so few Americans.
'I don't see it changing any time soon,' Tiger Woods said Wednesday morning after a brief session on the range next to U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and Tour Championship winner Adam Scott, both from Australia.
'I see it as world golf getting more dominant than the U.S.'
Woods is the tournament host and No. 1 player in the world. The only other Americans at Sherwood are David Toms, Chris DiMarco, Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Daly. The latter two received the two sponsor invitations.
The United States is 1-2-3 in the world rankings, with Jim Furyk at No. 2 and Phil Mickelson at No. 3, both of them choosing not to play this week. That doesn't skew the numbers, because four international players from the top 10 also opted for time off around the holidays.
Americans still own the majors, having won 28 of the last 40. The depth, however, comes from overseas.
'It all goes in cycles,' Scott said. 'In the '80s and probably the '90s, the Americans dominated the game. I think you're seeing the other side of the cycle now. The foreign players have a stronger presence. I don't know why that is. It's role reversal almost.'
A generation ago, the best two players were from England (Nick Faldo) and Australia (Greg Norman), while American golf was strong because of its sheer numbers.
Consider the world rankings. When first published before the 1986 Masters, the top three were Europeans (Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle), but there were 31 Americans in the top 50.
Now, the top three are Americans, but there are only 14 Americans in the top 50.
This is not necessarily an indictment of American golf. The reason for this global balance is the strength of the PGA TOUR, which attracts the best from around the world because a routine event can pay twice as much as tours anywhere else.
True, the United States only has 14 of the top 50 in the world, but no other country has more than six players (Australia).
'Golf is a global game, and this year in particular, there are more foreigners and less Americans,' said Michael Campbell, the 2005 U.S. Open champion from New Zealand. 'I think it's a good thing. It's good for the game. The only thing is, they all play here. The best golf is still in America, but it's filled up with nationalities.'
The Target World Challenge starts Thursday, the first time Woods has played on the U.S. mainland since he won the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston on Labor Day.
And while it is an exhibition in the purest sense, it serves as a barometer for the shift in power.
The first tournament had nine Americans in the 12-man field in late 1999. There were nine Americans in the 16-man field in 2002, and half the field was from overseas last year. This is the first time in the eight-year history of Woods' event that Americans were in the minority. Had everyone played who was eligible, there would have been only three Americans (not counting two invitations).
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who won this event four years ago, says it is no coincidence that most of the top players seem to be coming from England and Australia.
'Norman and Faldo, both in their own areas, definitely encouraged more players to play and younger players to choose golf as their sport,' he said. 'All the guys we have now are a result of guys winning the majors in the '80s and '90s. That's why they're coming out now.'
No European has won the U.S. Open since 1970, and the PGA Championship since 1930. But they won the British Open seven times during a 14-year span from 1979 to 1992, and the Masters 11 times in a 20-year period from 1980 to 1999.
Norman only won two majors, but no one was in contention at the majors more often during the height of his powers.
'I know why Europe is strong now,' Harrington said. 'I don't know why the U.S. isn't.'
Woods believes the U.S. college system is one reason behind the shift. Americans are taught to finish high school and go to college, which could be anywhere from one to four years. Then it's off to qualifying school, which could take a few years to pass.
'Other countries, they start playing professional golf at an early age,' Woods said. 'Look at Langer. He turned pro at age 15? You don't do that here. You go to high school, college, then you turn pro. Most of the guys from outside the country already have got one or two years under their belt.'
If this is a cycle, one has to wonder if it will ever change. The borders in golf are more blurred than ever. Not only are the best in the world coming to the United States, many of them are making this their home. And while Harrington says Europeans were inspired by major champions from a generation ago, he doubts that will happen again.
The best player is an American citizen with global appeal.
'The whole world is influenced by whoever is playing well at the time,' Harrington said. 'Tiger has changed everything. Everybody -- Europeans and Americans -- want to play like Tiger.'
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