Rest of World Catching up to Americans

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135th Open Championship HOYLAKE, England -- Thirty-four flags are flapping in the breeze above the 18th green at Royal Liverpool, a potpourri of colors symbolizing the diverse field for this British Open.
 
The red, white and blue sure doesnt stand out like it used to.
 
Make no mistake, the United States is still the golfing worlds superpower, but all those other countries are closing the gap on Tiger, Phil and Co.
 
Every time we turn on our American coverage on the TV, it always seems that half the top 10 are so-called foreign, be it Australians or Europeans or South Africans or Koreans or Japanese, whatever, Colin Montgomerie marveled Tuesday. Right now, the rest of the world, if you like, is performing very well.
 
Just look at the world rankings, that convoluted formula that no one really understands but does provide a fairly accurate barometer on the state of the game.
 
Tiger Woods is at the top of the list. Phil Mickelson is No. 2. No argument there'the two best Americans are clearly the two best players on the planet.
 
But scan down a little farther, and its clear that the Americans dont have such a dominating grip on the standings. The only other U.S. player in the top 10 is Jim Furyk at No. 5.
 
Compare that to the rankings at the end of 2000, when the stars and stripes dominated with twice as many players in the top 10 -- Woods and Mickelson joined by David Duval, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman.
 
The trend holds up deeper into the list. The Americans currently hold down six of the top 25 spots, compared with 12 of 25 at the start of the decade. The U.S. has eight fewer spots in the top 50, dropping from 26 to 18.
 
The rest of the world has gotten better, said American Ben Curtis, the improbable British Open winner from 2003 who finally picked up his second career victory just last month. Theyre trying harder to get over and play (on the U.S.-based PGA Tour). I think thats the reason you see more of them up there in the points.
 
Curtis has a point. The rankings include plenty of guys such as No. 3 Vijay Singh of Fiji, No. 6 Adam Scott of Australia, No. 9 Sergio Garcia of Spain and No. 11 Luke Donald of England, all regulars on the PGA Tour.
 
Then theres a player such as No. 19 Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, who splits time between the two tours. So far this year, hes entered seven events on the European tour, five on the PGA Tour and three that are part of both circuits.
 
Its not that weve made it easier for them to play on our tour, but weve opened up to them, Curtis said. Thats made a huge difference in the rankings. Its not necessarily what the Americans are doing. More of them have gotten over to play on our tour, and theyve played well.
 
That said, golfs surging popularity around the world -- 14 countries other than the U.S. are represented in the top 50 -- appears to be coinciding with a bit of a lull in Americas developmental pipeline.
 
While Sutton has essentially retired, Lehman (No. 48) is closer to the senior tour than his prime and Love (24th) is struggling to hold his spot among the games elite players, theres no one on the horizon showing signs of becoming another Woods or Mickelson.
 
The American Ryder Cup team could have as many five rookies this year, but the contenders are J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson, Brett Wetterich, Vaughn Taylor and Lucas Glover. Good, solid players? Yes. Any of them on the verge of greatness? Probably not.
 
Theres obviously some great young American players that weve never heard of yet, and we will, Montgomerie said. But I havent seen or heard of them yet, no, no. I dont mean to sound that way. I just havent heard of them as of yet.
 
In fact, some Americans who figured to be running neck-and-neck with Woods and Mickelson at his point in their careers are nowhere to be found.
 
That list is headed by Duval, who reached the top of the world rankings, won the 2001 British Open for his first major title, then suddenly couldnt figure out how to hit the ball straight. At 34, hes still struggling to turn things around, failing to make the cut in half of his 16 events this year and cracking the top 20 at only one tournament.
 
Charles Howell III is another guy who appeared to be a major champion in the making. But a 2002 victory at Kingsmill is still his only PGA Tour victory, and hes taken a major step backward this year. With only one finish in the top 25, Howell has plummeted to 60th on the money list and wont even be playing at the British Open this week.
 
Then theres Matt Kuchar, who appeared to be a star-in-the-making when he contended at both the Masters and the U.S. Open as an amateur. His pro career is a different matter. Hes managed only one victory on the PGA Tour and lost his card after finishing 159th on the money list last year.
 
Curtis never dropped as far as Kuchar, but he needed nearly three years to follow up his British Open title with his second career victory. The 29-year-old won the Booz Allen Classic last month, but win No. 2 hardly compares to his first'most of the top players skipped the Washington-area event.
 
Even so, maybe his career will take off now that hes won again. Or maybe someone else will come along to challenge Woods and Mickelson. Whatever the case, Curtis doesnt believe American golf is in a downward spiral.
 
Somebody is going to come up and be a star, he said. Theres a lot of great players out there who have never won. Its just a matter of time. Once they get to the winners circle, who knows what might happen?
 
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