June 27, 2007

Cabrera win no foreign concept

Senior pros are the tenured professors of the sport's competitive wing, having made and missed plenty of putts and flown more miles than they can count. They can offer perspective, and golf's new globalism, as evidenced most recently by Angel Cabrera's U.S. Open victory, is no exception.

Cabrera is the championship's fourth consecutive international winner, following Retief Goosen of South Africa (2004), Michael Campbell of New Zealand (2005) and Geoff Ogilvy of Australia (2006). It is an unprecedented modern-day run, and you have to go back a century, when British golfers ruled the U.S. Open's embryonic stages, to find anything remotely similar.

"It's pretty amazing," says Nick Price, "but I think golf goes through phases. There was that period where [Nick] Faldo, Greg [Norman] and I dominated in the 1990s. The last couple of years in the U.S. Open, those guys adjusted and adapted better than anyone else. It was just survival, a test of patience, perseverance and character. That's what that event is about."

The results of one championship don't tell all, particularly when the outcome is as tight as recent U.S. Opens, but they don't have to. There is strength in numbers--and increasing strength among foreign players. Like most statistical barometers, the World Ranking isn't perfect, but it is a good gauge of where things stand. Tiger Woods, for example, has enjoyed a dictatorial reign at No. 1, but in the latest ranking only 16 of the top 50 players, and 44 of the top 100, are from the United States. Compare these numbers with 2002 (27, 50) and 1997 (32, 56). There is even greater diversity in the Rolex Women's Golf Rankings, which has 14 Americans in the top 50 and just 21 in the top 100.

The caddie yards, country clubs and colleges of the United States used to produce the bulk of the world's best players, but those days have gone the way of $1.29-a-gallon gasoline. "Everybody speculates [foreign golfers] are more hungry, but I don't know," says eight-time major champion Tom Watson. "I think our players need to go back to fundamentals, their grips and setups. I think the internationals have better fundamentals."

Getting the basics, much less a handle on advanced techniques, used to be so much harder for golfers outside the United States. "There was somewhat of an inferiority complex in that you felt there were things going on inside America that you couldn't get your hands on," says 63-year-old Australian Graham Marsh, who won 56 tournaments around the world, many of them when travel was a hurdle in itself. "When I first went to Europe, the route Qantas used to take out of Sydney was aptly named the ‘Kangaroo Route' because it was six or seven stops into London and took well over 40 hours with all the stopovers," Marsh says. "Now it's 10 hours to somewhere in Asia, then non-stop from there."

The mere presence of a global ranking offers exemptions into major championships that players of Marsh's generation didn't enjoy, regardless of their willingness to fly. Worldwide television broadcasts and the Internet expose aspiring golfers in distant lands to the fame and riches that await success, whether the individual is coming out of a well-organized national development program such as Ogilvy or the school of hard knocks, in the case of Cabrera.

Like foreign cars, an increasing number of foreign golfers are being made in America, where the Nationwide Tour is a proving ground and avenue to the PGA Tour without having to endure the crapshoot of Q school. For players who want to develop their games elsewhere, improved golf courses are easing what used to be a difficult transition. "We used to play absolute goat tracks on the Asian tour," says Marsh. "The courses were an intimidating factor for us when we came over to America. Now there are a lot of great courses [in Asia]. The platform where golfers there learn the game is entirely different."

Financial pressures on home circuits elsewhere are fast-forwarding golf's globalism. "When I was chairman of the PGA Tour in Australia," says Marsh, "we had 17 major tournaments, and now we're down to three or four. As a result, young players, once they realize they have some kind of game, are looking to get outside the country to test themselves--initially in Japan or Europe, or on the Nationwide Tour."

Lee Trevino thinks in 10 years the game's growing international flavor will lead to the Esperanto of pro circuits. "Golf will be an international game," Trevino predicts. "There will be a world tour, 30 tournaments all over the world."

Regardless of who is playing where, it will be handy to possess the resolve of Watson, a man from middle America who reminisced fondly last week about a long-ago hole-in-one. With a 1-iron. On New Year's Day. In Kansas City. "It was into a 30-mile-an-hour wind," he recalled, "and the temperature was about 28 degrees."

Now, that is a shot that will travel well.