Plenty of International Flavor at Riviera

By Associated PressFebruary 14, 2007, 5:00 pm
2007 Nissan OpenLOS ANGELES -- Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia are among international players making their first PGA TOUR start of 2007 at the Nissan Open, and it's no coincidence that Riviera has the deepest field on tour this year.
Even without Tiger Woods.
The last few years has brought an unstoppable shift in the world of golf, and now a majority of the top players in the world rankings come from abroad. Sure, Woods and Jim Furyk give the Americans a 1-2 punch at the top, and the way Phil Mickelson won at Pebble Beach last week, it might not be long before he makes it a threesome.
Sergio Garcia
Sergio Garcia is making his 2007 PGA TOUR debut at the Nissan Open. (Wire Images)
Top to bottom, however, golf has gone global.
'Over here, we play for a lot of money,' Els said Wednesday. 'So that draws a lot more players to come and play the U.S. tour. It means that the depth of the field becomes a lot stronger than anywhere else in the world. And subsequently, you have a stronger tour. But you've got a much broader base of players from around the world.'
Consider the Nissan Open, which starts Thursday with Rory Sabbatini -- a South African -- as the defending champion.
The tournament boasts 11 of the top 13 players in the world, and all but two of them (Furyk and Mickelson) carry passports. Els, Goosen, Garcia and Paul Casey have been playing in the desert, but it was in Qatar, Dubai or Abu Dhabi, not Phoenix or Palm Springs.
Another example of international power -- more world ranking points were available at Abu Dhabi than the Bob Hope Classic.
It's quite a turnaround from when the world rankings first were introduced two decades ago. The top three players were European (Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle), but there were 31 Americans among the top 50.
Now, it's top-heavy with Americans, but there are only 13 others in the top 50.
'The golf world has changed its face a little bit,' said David Howell of England. 'The U.S. tour, pretty much most weeks there are more international players than U.S. players, which obviously would have been unheard of 10, 15 years ago. I would imagine that's good for golf.'
His numbers were slightly off. The Americans still have a 2-to-1 advantage at Riviera in the 144-man field.
Then again, the numbers favor international players in other ways, for they have won the Nissan Open the last four years, and six times in the last 10 years. Adam Scott's victory wasn't official in 2005 because it was only 36 holes (plus a playoff) due to rain.
That shouldn't be a problem this year.
The forecast called for mostly sunshine this week, and players already can tell the difference. Not only are the greens firm and quick, but the rough isn't quite as deep as it has been in recent years.
'Hopefully, the conditions stay as they are because the course is a lot firmer and faster than we've seen it in the past,' Scott said. 'I think that's going to really require some shotmaking this week. I'm excited about that.'
Aside from Woods, the only player missing from the top 10 is Dubai Desert Classic winner Henrik Stenson of Sweden.
The reason so many international players -- especially those with European Tour membership -- are at Riviera is to get acclimated to the U.S. surroundings heading into the Accenture Match Play Championship next week outside Tucson, Ariz.
The conditions figure to be nothing alike, however.
Match Play moves to a new desert course in Arizona, where the greens figure to be smooth and the fairways generous. The Nissan Open is held at storied Riviera with its kikuya fairways and poa annua greens that can get bumpy in the afternoon. That's the biggest reason Woods decided to skip his hometown tournament for only the second time as a pro.
Not than anyone misses him terribly.
Els was asked if Woods' absence changes the outlook, especially considering the world's No. 1 player has won his last seven starts on the PGA TOUR.
'Him not being here?' Els asked to clarify.
Then he smiled.
'Yes, absolutely,' he said. 'I mean, whenever Tiger plays, he basically shows up with his game, and he is basically effective. So yes, it changes a little bit. Seeing that Phil won last week, he's probably the guy to beat this week. When he gets hot, he's as good as anybody. So is Adam, Retief. I can go down the list. We've got a great field here.
'But yes, it makes it a little bit different with Tiger not being here.'
Els won at Riviera in 1999, and probably should have won in 1995 at the PGA Championship until he played conservatively in the final round and got left behind. Scott followed that unofficial victory in '05 by making a late charge to finish second at Riviera a year ago.
Goosen is simply looking for a chance.
He didn't even make it to the first tee the last time he was here, in 2005, having overslept and missing his pro-am time by some 10 minutes. Under PGA TOUR policy, those who don't make the pro-am give up their spot in the field.
'The last time I was here, I only played one practice round,' Goosen said. 'But I brought six alarm clocks with me this week. I'm not going to be sleeping so well before Wednesday and Thursday.'
Alarm clocks could come in handy in other ways. If Americans aren't aware of it already, this week might be another wake-up call that the international players are no longer occasional guests on the PGA TOUR.
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