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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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International Flavor: U.S. Open Has Become A Global Happening

International Flavor
Angel Cabrera, working on his game Tuesday, is one of four international players to win the U.S. Open over the past five years. (John Mummert/USGA)

As game continues its global growth, so too are the number of foreign players qualifying for the U.S. Open

By Dave Shedloski

Farmingdale, N.Y. – It’s a quaint notion to think that the U.S. Open Championship – or the other two golf majors contested in America – by some kind of divine right should be predominantly the province of American golfers. But, then, one would be ignoring history.

After all, it took 17 tries for the U.S. Open trophy to be held aloft in victory by an American-born player, that being John J. McDermott, winner of the 1911 championship at the Chicago Golf Club.

When the 109th U.S. Open commences Thursday at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, a native-born champion has a better than average chance of winning the title – though defending champion and No. 1 player in the world Tiger Woods tends to tilt the odds significantly.

That being said, don’t be surprised if an international player claims the title by week’s end. Barring any last-minute withdrawals, 69 of the 156 players competing in the year’s second major championship hail from outside the U.S. What’s more, six of the last nine majors have been won by non-Americans, including the last three: Ireland’s Padraig Harrington at the British Open and PGA Championship, and Argentina’s Angel Cabrera at the Masters.

Until Woods outlasted Rocco Mediate last year in a playoff at Torrey Pines for his third Open crown, internationals owned a streak of four straight U.S. Open victories.

“I think you’re just seeing a natural progression of the way the game is going,” said England’s Paul Casey, the No. 3 player in the Official World Golf Ranking. “It can be intimidating playing in America, and particularly an American major. Courses are big, crowds are big; it’s a lot to handle. The talent is there. We have great players who are not afraid of winning. It’s just a matter of getting used to playing your game in that different atmosphere.”

Decades ago, most international players didn’t have the wherewithal to acclimate themselves to the American golf scene. With the exception of Gary Player and a few others, most golfers remained geographically land-locked in their home countries or regional tours.

“It’s so easy now for the international players as opposed to 20-30 years ago,” said Reuters sports reporter Mark Lamport-Stokes. “You had a Gary Player or Harold Henning but not a lot of guys who came to the U.S. regularly. You look at someone like Dale Hayes, a wonderful young South African player, who was the youngest winner of a European event [1971 Spanish Open] until [reigning U.S. Amateur champion] Danny Lee this year at the Johnnie Walker. Going to play in America, the intimidation factor for him was huge having to face a [Jack] Nicklaus or [Lee] Trevino or [Tom] Watson. The guys today, they come here and they have mates next door in Orlando. It’s almost the same for us as journalists. We have our little fraternity just as the players do.

“The world is smaller. The golf world is certainly a lot smaller.”

John Hopkins, longtime writer for The Times of London, said that standards of tournament golf competition around the world have fostered greater parity.

“If you play in Europe or Australia and you win, you’re pretty good,” said Hopkins. “Success does breed success. The natural progression then is to go to America, because that’s where the majors are. Plus you have The Players [Championship], the World Golf Championships … it’s all part of building to a level that guys know they can achieve. [Nick] Faldo saw Sandy Lyle win and he figures he can win, too. Jose Maria Olazabal saw Seve [Ballesteros] win and he thinks he can do it.”

The opportunity to get acclimated to American golf is probably the biggest factor in the rise of international players. Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy lends further credence to the experience factor.

“More good players are playing in the U.S. full time now, which probably makes tournaments like this a little less intimidating,” said Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion. “If you played your whole career in Europe and just lobbed over for one week for this tournament, it's a different kettle of fish. More players are playing here on a regular basis. That's probably why we see them contend more in majors. But it's nice.”

Indeed, golf might have caught on around the world, but the world’s best golfers gravitate to one country. “If you want to do anything in this game, you have to play well in these events,” said Spain’s Sergio Garcia. “This week it is the U.S. Open. It’s a major. They mean the most, and we play three of them in the U.S. If you want to be successful, you have to prove yourself here.”

The USGA has also made it easier for internationals players to qualify, with the addition of full exemptions being awarded to the top 15 money leaders on the previous year’s European Tour money list, and the top two money leaders on the Japan Golf Tour and PGA Tour of Australasia, provided they are within the top 75 on the Official World Golf Ranking. The top five money leaders on the current-year European Tour money list also are exempt, as are the top 50 in the OWGR as of May 25.

In 2005, international sectional qualifying was added (England and Japan) to the equation, giving those playing on overseas tours a chance to make the U.S. Open field without the hassle of flying to the U.S. That year Michael Campbell took advantage of this by entering sectional qualifying and then winning the Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

The extra sectional qualifiers and added exemption categories have created a more diverse U.S. Open. It’s also brought added media attention from an ever-increasing foreign press. Credentials were given out to reporters from Asia, South America, Africa, Australia and Europe.

“What’s interesting,” Lamport-Stokes added, “is that the European Tour essentially plays all over the world and not just in Europe. But as far as fields go, all of the world eventually comes to the U.S.”

That’s why 21 different foreign countries from every continent other than Antarctica are represented here this week. It might be America’s National Open, but it belongs to a larger community now.

“It shouldn't be a point of discussion that American guys aren’t winning or why are foreigners winning,” said Ogilvy. “It should just be this is interesting; we've got an Argentinean winning the Masters. It's a South African winning the Masters, cool stuff … Irishman winning the PGA. It's just cool stories to be told.”

And, odds are, another cool story could unfold this week.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship Web sites.


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