TO START A raging debate – or, at least, a stimulating discussion – assemble a group of passionate golfers and toss out this question:
Why do international players enjoy so much success at the Masters and the other major championships?
They do, you know.
And there’s no all-encompassing explanation.
In the past quarter-century, a player born outside the United States donned the Masters champion’s green jacket 13 times – and that number could be higher without the exploits of guys named Woods and Mickelson, the dynamic duo who accounted for seven of the 12 Masters titles U.S. players have earned since 1989.
In 25 years, international players have claimed 45 of the 100 majors – 13 Masters, 12 British Opens, 10 U.S. Opens and 10 PGAs. Tiger owns 14 of the U.S. total.
Of course, international players are good. Six of the top 10 in the world rankings are international players. In the top 50, the U.S. holds a razor-thin 26-24 edge. But this country imported the game from Scotland for Palmer to popularize and Nicklaus and Woods to prefect. Isn’t it “ours”?
The “desire theory” – that international players want to win more – can’t be the reason. Or can it? Every player who tees up in a major championship wants to win, no matter how remote the chance. Yes, there are players who play for a check instead of a championship. But Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera, who staged a terrific playoff at Augusta National this past April, offered food for thought.
“We are a proud sporting country and like to think we’re the best at everything – like any proud sporting country thinks,” Scott, an Australian, said after winning the 2013 title with a birdie on the second extra hole.
And this from Cabrera, after his 2007 U.S. Open triumph: “I hope (the people of Argentina) are enjoying it. This is for them.” Cabrera after winning the 2009 Masters: “This win, to take back to Argentina, it’s going to help a lot with our game.”
“Strength of field” could play a role at the Masters; fewer than 100 earn invitations, and more than half are the longest of long shots. But the other three majors include up to 156, and the international contingent has a similar success rate.
“Course setup?” Hmmm, maybe we’re getting closer to a plausible explanation. The majors offer more challenging courses, and that separates contenders from pretenders. The weekly drive-and-putt events take a holiday. Jack Nicklaus used to say he could mentally eliminate any competitor who complained about how difficult the rough made a U.S. Open.
The late Seve Ballesteros, never one shy with opinions and always willing to lob a verbal barb at U.S. players, once offered an interesting reason: agronomy.
The top U.S. players mostly grew up on immaculately conditioned courses, he theorized, and they struggle with shots that require imagination. But international golfers learned to cope with gnarly lies, hitting shots off hardpan and face less than ideal grasses.
“(Internationals) have to learn how to ‘manufacture’ shots,” he said in offering his take on Europeans winning seven of nine Masters between 1988 and ’96.
Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who won the 2010 British Open and lost the 2012 Masters in a playoff with Bubba Watson, said: “Everyone can see that they can win big tournaments. It was just a matter of a few guys stepping up and doing it for the rest of us to see that it’s possible.”
No one would have shared that thought before Gary Player arrived on the scene more than 50 years ago, and the possibilities did not really take wing until Ballesteros, Norman, José María Olazabal and Faldo began to make noise.
Now, there is this: many players, no matter their native land, have settled in the United States, and Florida is a favorite spot. In talking to reporters not long ago about defending his championship in this year’s RBC Heritage, Graeme McDowell, a Northern Irishman, spoke from his office in Orlando.
So, maybe the question is flawed. Maybe the focus on nationality is wrong. They are, after all, golfers – and does anything else matter?
SITE: Augusta National Golf Club
TV: Thursday and Friday, 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN; Saturday, 3-7 p.m., CBS; Sunday, 2-7 p.m., CBS