Open closing its borders to own U.S. countrymen

U.s. Open

June 13, 2007|By RICK MAESE

OAKMONT, PA. -- You expect the Green Bay Packers to win at Lambeau Field in December. You figure the bulls will fare OK on the streets of Pamplona. And you'd bet the mortgage that Takeru Kobayashi will eat the most hot dogs at a Tokyo Wienerschnitzel. In competition, home-field advantage is supposed to mean something.

So how then do we reason that the U.S. Open is about to tee off at Oakmont Country Club and the American golfers have rarely looked so vulnerable on their home turf?

Lately, it's like they've been running a red carpet for their out-of-country guests from the first tee box Thursday to the 18th green Sunday. Consider this: Each of the past three U.S. Opens has been won by an international player - South Africa's Retief Goosen in 2004, New Zealand's Michael Campbell in 2005 and Australia's Geoff Ogilvy last year at Winged Foot Golf Club.

Sure, the number three inspires more yawns than yowls, but do you know the last time the Americans suffered this long a drought in their own Open? You have to go all the way back to 1910, back before a single U.S. player had even won a U.S. Open.

"It's no longer like the United States tour," said Masters winner and Iowa native Zach Johnson. "It's a global tour."

And while the overall quality of competition on the PGA Tour is certainly strong, we can comparatively see that the Americans are falling further behind their foreign-born counterparts.

The spotlight at last year's Open shone on Phil Mickelson's final-round Wile E. Coyote impersonation. But comparing the leader board to those of previous Opens reveals just how the influx of international talent is affecting Americans.

Twenty years ago, six of the top 33 U.S. Open finishers were foreign-born. Nearly a decade later, in 1996, there were seven in the top 32. And last year at Winged Foot? International players constituted 21 of the tournament's top 31 finishers.

But here's what's even more striking: While other countries are putting their young guns higher on the money list, the young U.S. golfers are mostly firing blanks. And there doesn't appear to be much in the way of reloading.

Tiger Woods turns 32 in December. The generation behind him is collecting more participation ribbons than trophies. Other nations' young talent is like a who's-who of wunderkinds. America's best is more like who's-he?

Australia has Ogilvy (who turned 31 on Monday), Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley (both 26). South Africa has Rory Sabbatini (31), Spain has Sergio Garcia (27) and England has Luke Donald (29) and Kenneth Ferrie (28).

The top U.S. golfers under 30 couldn't be picked out of a caddie lineup: Lucas Glover, Charles Howell III, Troy Matteson? Memo to the 2020 American Ryder Cup team: Better start blaming the caddying and wind conditions and captain John Daly right about ... now.

It's no wonder the Aussies, the Brits and every player whose countrymen have to wake up in the middle of the night to follow the Tour can't rave enough about the future.

"Apparently it fired a few people up in Australia and a few of the Australians on Tour, that if I can win, why can't they?" Ogilvy said about his Open win last year. "It's definitely good for Australian golf."

But Ogilvy notes that Australia's resurgence in golf predates him. What we're seeing now is the continuation, not fruition, of a movement. "Maybe my win will spur on a bunch of Australian wins and that will have an impact in 20 years' time because of all the kids picking up clubs," he said.

And that's exactly why the Americans' game is faltering while those representing other countries are taking up more slots in each week's field. For all Woods has accomplished, we've seen little noticeable effect on American participation. Meanwhile, courses in China are popping up faster than Applebee's in the American suburbs.

The game that was born in Scotland and perfected in America will soon be dominated by just about everyone else. As far as the U.S. Open is concerned, at least the Americans have a track record worth bragging about. Since 1925, they've won 68 Opens. Over that same period, Europeans have won only once.

"It's probably only a question of time," said Irish golfer Padraig Harrington. "[Europeans] are all capable of doing it. ... If they have a good week, any of them, they can win. There's probably five or six, maybe even as many as 10, that are capable of winning this week. And they are only getting better over the years."

The U.S. Open is one of sports' most beautiful narratives, linking together American greats Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Woods. Surely there will be many more American champs to come - maybe even one this weekend - but we'll learn soon enough that the past three years of American futility is much more than a blip on the tournament's timeline. Long gone are the days when a U.S. champ at the U.S. Open was a foregone conclusion.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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