That was just 10 years ago. Today, Woods tops the money chart with $9,941,563 ' oh, hes done that while playing just 15 times on TOUR. If Lehman won $1,780,159 this year, he would scarcely raise an eyebrow. That figure wouldnt even make the TOUR Championship ' which, incidentally is played this week to close out the season. Lehman would be down in 36th place on the list if he had won that much moolah. As it is, Lehman wasnt far off that figure, but this time he is No. 42 with $1,692,081. That, in case youre wondering, would have been the third-most money 10 years ago.
But theres another major difference in 1996 and 2006. In 1996, the top 10 golfers were all from the U.S. Notice anything different about the TOUR Championship year?
Youre right ' six of the top nine cash boys were born outside the U.S. Tiger is tops and Jim Furyk is second. But then comes a world atlas of players: No. 3, Vijay Singh, Fiji; No. 4, Phil Mickelson; No. 5, Geoff Ogilvy, Australia; No. 6, Adam Scott, Australia; No. 7, Trevor Immelman, South Africa; No. 8, Stuart Appleby, Australia; and No. 9, Luke Donald, England.
Note that Australia has as many in the top nine as does the U.S. And not one is named Greg Norman. Australia has nearly lost its tour due to a widespread lack of sponsorship ' a total of eight events remain spread over four months. But that country is very well represented on the U.S. tour with those three plus a fourth player, Rod Pampling, preparing to tee it up at the TOUR Championship.
Golf, it firmly appears, has gone global. The U.S. has the No. 1 tour solely because it pays the most money in purses and sponsorships. But the U.S. no longer has a lock on the best players. You have to look at the globe if youre wondering where the majority of the great players play their golf.
The reason? Its either because, No. 1, the U.S. programs are no longer turning out dominating players; or, No. 2, because golf in the rest of the world has gotten decidedly better. For the sake of my country, Ive got to hope the answer is No. 2.
Lets face it (and I certainly have) ' our pros have been caught and passed by Europe. Oh, we probably still can brag about our country versus an individual country ' England by itself might not be as good, Scotland, Sweden. But they shouldnt be ' you cant expect a country with the population of, say, South Africa, to be as adept as a country the size of the U.S. But believe me, South Africa is not far behind. And neither is Australia.
But the balance of excellence has decidedly shifted. As late as last season, seven of the top 10 on the American tour were Americans ' the exceptions were Singh, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia. Garcia and Goosen, incidentally, have slipped way down, Garcia to 49th and Goosen to 25th. If they were still as dominate as they were last year ' can you believe the PGA TOUR could possibly have nine out of 10 who were foreign-born?
Some say the American slide is caused by the college programs which arrange their players in teams instead of the participants competing as individuals. As long as the team wins, the golfer has done his job. The boys can rally around the universitys banner and celebrate, regardless if the individual finished first or 40th in the competition.
The problem with this reasoning, though, is that colleges have used this method for determining a victor 100 years now. So it strains the logic to believe that this is relevant today, but it wasnt 10 years ago. There is no doubt the American colleges no longer turn out the dominate pros ' witness the dearth of U.S. players under 30 years of age who are in the top 30 in the world rankings. No longer do alumni of Houston, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Southern Cal, Texas or UCLA dominate the PGA TOUR.
Australia has a very advanced upper-level golf program, academies for kids in their mid- to late teens to go to polish their golf skills. So does Sweden. Both, incidentally, are open to middle-class youth as well as the wealthy kids.
The U.S. doesnt have a well-developed program for the under-privileged children. Many, many courses are private, and very few have junior programs for those kids whose parents arent members. And the simple fact is, you have to be a person of means to belong to these country clubs.
The UK has an overwhelming number of courses that are well within the financial scope of the common man. So does Australia.
South Korea has made huge advances in womens golf, churning out an assembly line of young pros. The Korean men, however, have compulsory military duty which prevents them from becoming adept at the sport. All across the globe, however, people are turning on more and more to golf.
So perhaps its not the rankings itself which is passing by the Americans. Perhaps it is the rest of the world which is catching up. Lets face it ' these guys are just flat-out good.
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