June 19, 2008

Twenty Questions

Why is the international crop of twentysomething golfers better than their American counterparts?

Garcia's creativity is reflective of foreign players who favor "golf" over "golf swing."

Garcia's creativity is reflective of foreign players who favor "golf" over "golf swing."

While Tiger Woods was putting to the picture, one of the clearest snapshots to emerge from the PGA Championship captured the wide chasm between the best young international professionals and their American counterparts.

Lately it's been easy to generally malign golf's twentysomethings for their lack of victories, putting touch and shotmaking skills, and for getting lapped by the now 30-year-old Tiger Woods, rather than drafting off his rear bumper. But a closer look reveals that the biggest void in the game's youth movement is located in the United States.

At Medinah, three youthful internationals—Luke Donald, 28, of England, and Adam Scott of Australia and Sergio Garcia of Spain, both 26—took positive career steps in tying for third. Donald survived a valuable rite of passage in his final-round Sunday pairing with Woods, while Scott achieved his highest finish ever in a major. Garcia showed resiliency in bouncing back from his final-round collapse at last month's British Open, maturity in overcoming a triple bogey on his second hole of round two and welcome progress on the greens, although he remained very much El Niño when it came to the lack of grace he showed Woods. "Everything went his way, too," said Garcia after closing with a 70 to finish six back. "The bad shots he hit all week, he got away with them. You know, that's about it."

The Americans giving the best account of themselves at the PGA were two resurgent babes, 23-year-old Ryan Moore, who tied for ninth with elder twentysomething Aussie Geoff Ogilvy, and 24-year-old Sean O'Hair, who tied for 12th.

Statistically, young America actually overachieved in the year's last major. But even after the championship, there was not one American player in his 20s among the top 50 in the World Ranking. The highest-ranked are Lucas Glover (52nd) and O'Hair (54th), followed by Moore (79th), J.B. Holmes (80th), Charles Howell III (90th), Ben Curtis (118th), Ryan Palmer (126th) and Jonathan Byrd (140th). All but Howell made the cut at Medinah.

Meanwhile, seven international players in their 20s reside near the top of the ranking: Scott (sixth), Ogilvy (seventh), Garcia (ninth), Donald (10th), Trevor Immelman of South Africa (14th), Carl Pettersson of Sweden (25th) and Paul Casey of England (32nd). At the very least, it doesn't bode well for future Ryder and Presidents Cups. "They've pretty much kicked our butt," admitted Byrd, 28, who along with Curtis is the only American under 30 with more than one official victory.

In recent years the U.S. has lost its former world dominance in tennis, baseball and even basketball, so perhaps it is inevitable that golf will follow suit. But most insiders say American complacency is not the problem. "This whole group of young players—Americans and internationals—works harder than guys from the past did," said veteran caddie Tony Navarro, who caddied for Howell before his current partnership with Scott. Immelman added, "Some of the greatest sportsmen in the history of the world are American. Especially Tiger, and he sets the work ethic the young U.S. guys follow. But it might be that the guys from foreign countries have some advantages." At Medinah, the following five were most often mentioned:

1) Earlier pro start—More international players tend to skip college, most notably Ogilvy, Garcia, Immelman, Justin Rose of England (ranked 120th) and Australian Aaron Baddeley (94th). Scott attended UNLV for 1½ years, but said of the Australian system, "Our golf institutes teach more about the game than American colleges do." Said Immelman. "It's a massive jump from amateur to pro anyway, and we tend to get the hard part out of the way sooner. In our teens, we get used to traveling far from our families and getting on with it, so maybe that makes us tougher."

2) Foreign tours are a more forgiving place to learn—Scott, Garcia, Immelman and Rose all played the European Tour before coming to America, and 27-year-old Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland (ranked 86th) believes it was to their benefit. "You tend to climb the rankings faster in Europe than you do here in the States," he said. "The middle of the field in America is so much deeper that if you play sloppy golf, you miss the cut. But in Europe the middle of the field isn't as strong and you can get some nice runs under your belt, really build some confidence, and [maybe] get a win or two."

The Nationwide tour has been a successful domestic developmental league for the PGA Tour, but a foreign experience probably adds extra seasoning. "It seems like the guys I play against from Australia and Europe are more relaxed," said Palmer, 29. "Maybe part of that is from being thrown in the water early."

3) Urgency to win—"In America," said Scott, "once you get on tour, it's easy to fall into playing OK and making $100,000 for finishing 10th and another $100,000 and another. You have young millionaires who have never won a tournament. But where's the incentive to win? That's something that should be looked at by the tour to get these guys out here winning younger."

4) Better early instruction—"I think promising American kids play too many tournaments," said instructor Peter Kostis. "International players, through golf federations like the ones in Australia and Sweden, develop golf swings early on that are technically a little bit more sound, and they make technique a priority. Our young kids are forced into AJGA tournaments at a young age to get noticed for college, and they sacrifice long-term swing development for short-term competitive success. They pay the price later on, when they turn pro and realize their mechanics are lacking and feel like they have to revamp their golf games. That happened to Ricky Barnes and Bryce Molder. The younger you learn and ingrain the correct fundamentals—even if it means temporarily scoring higher—the better off you are."

5) More shotmaking skills—According to Butch Harmon, the fruit of good early instruction is versatility and freedom from overanalysis. "What I see with young international touring pros is they have more of a variety of shots," said Harmon. "They manage in less than perfect conditions, in all types of weather, and they get accustomed to improvising their way to the hole. They're more likely to be playing golf rather than [learning the] 'golf swing.'

"So many American kids play on perfectly manicured courses in good weather and hit perfect range balls on perfect ranges," Harmon added. "They tend to play more power golf, and then rely on their short games to bail them out. At the same time they tend to get focused on swing mechanics, and sometimes they get lost. Lately we've seen some American guys, like Charles Howell III, trying to get away from the technical stuff, trying to get more creative in the way they play, but it's tough to play catch up."

Perhaps not coincidentally, both Moore and O'Hair share some traits with the international model. O'Hair, last year's PGA Tour rookie of the year with a win at the John Deere Classic, turned pro at 18 and didn't attend college. A frequent practice partner of Woods, he has listened closely. "Tiger's not one of those guys who says he doesn't know why he's so good," said O'Hair. "He knows why he's so good. He believes that no one knows better than you about your own game … that there are certain things that you need to do in golf, you find out how to do them your own way, and once you figure them out, you'll be one of the top guys. I think it's the best advice anybody could have given me." The philosophy was put to the test at the beginning of this season when, with high hopes for 2006, O'Hair attempted to make his backswing more rounded under the guidance of instructor David Leadbetter. But after four months of mostly missed cuts, he broke with Leadbetter and went back to his old backswing and has had a solid summer. (O'Hair now works with Gary Gilchrist.)

Moore, the 2004 U.S. Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links, Western Amateur and NCAA champion, has shown moxie and toughness since turning pro last year, when he became the first player since Woods in 1996 to go from college to the tour in the same season without a trip to Q school. Most impressive was that he did it all after fracturing the hamate bone in his left hand. Since undergoing surgery earlier this year, Moore has struggled through the healing process, which made his performance at Medinah a mini-classic of improvisation. In order to alleviate pain from scar tissue, Moore played the entire event by beginning his swing by cocking his wrist upward so that the clubhead hovered a full two feet above the ball.

"If I had tried to swing perfect, I never would have used that move and wouldn't have played as well because I would have been in pain," said Moore, who shot 67-69 over the final 36 at Medinah. "I just had to be a little bit resourceful. That was the way I could swing the most consistent and get the ball in the hole, and that was all that was important to me."

If it becomes as important to his American counterparts, perhaps more of them will begin to stand taller in golf among the twentysomethings—and beyond.