- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Yes, Davis Love III is our first-round Masters leader, but look who's lined up behind him. Sergio Garcia, Angel Cabrera, Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington are all within two shots of Love's opening 67, and Ernie Els, Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh, Jesper Parnevik, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Nick Price are another stroke back.
The connection between all these fellows, in case you haven't figured it out, is that they're from Everywhere But Here. The Augusta leader board is gasp infested with international players.
Actually, this isn't all that unusual. The Masters has been uncommonly kind to foreigners over the years. For a while, in the late '80s and early '90s, they practically owned the place. What's unusual about this year is that they've been tearing up the rest of the PGA Tour, too. In fact, the last three tournaments have been won by New Zealander Craig Perks (Players Championship), Fijian Singh (Houston) and South African Goosen (BellSouth). (And the past two weeks, Northern Ireland's Clarke and Sweden's Parnevik have come in second.)
Is this just an aberration, a momentary blip, or are we witnessing the last days of the American golf empire? Well, it depends on how gloom-and-doom you want to get. Consider this, though: Seven of the 15 tournaments this year have been captured by how shall I describe them this time? non-residents. Last year at this point, the figure was two (the same as in 2000).
It's one thing to have players like Els, Goosen, Garcia, Singh and Olazabal making off with titles; they're among the best in the world. But when Perks and Canadian Ian Leggatt (Tucson) start lugging home the hardware, it's hard not to feel like you're being invaded, if not occupied. And I haven't even mentioned Japan's Kaname Yokoo (Phoenix) and New Zealand's Michael Campbell (Bay Hill), who took seconds (or Australia's Peter Lonard, who finished third at Tucson).
I don't mean any of this as a knock on Our Boys. I'm just trying to point out how competitive the game has become. Is there any question the 156-or-so spots available on the PGA Tour each week are the most hotly contested in sports? You've got European Tour members vying for them, Asian Tour members, Buy.com Tour members, the occasional hotshot amateur. It's the maddest of scrambles.
"Golf is growing around the world," Cabrera said through an interpreter. "You've got Goosen coming out of South Africa and Michael Campbell coming out of New Zealand. Then there's my own countryman, Jose Coceres, who won twice on the [U.S.] tour last year."
The year began with Garcia winning the Mercedes and things took off from there. Heck, Sergio thinks he should have won twice already, after being in contention at the Players and elsewhere.
"Everybody's just getting better," he says. "And the PGA Tour is getting more and more international players. I came over two or three years ago, Retief has come over, Olazabal and Jimenez have come over. It just raises the level of play."
And deflates America's sporting ego. (This, on the heels of Ichiro being voted American League MVP in his first season. I'm not sure how much more we can take.) But there's no denying it: the internationals are storming our beaches those with golf courses in the vicinity, anyway. Pay close attention to those Outback steakhouse ads, folks; pretty soon we may all be speaking Australian.
Harrington, the non-practicing accountant from Dublin, could be the next international to steal our silverware. He tied for fifth in the U.S. Open two years ago, was among the leaders through 36 holes at the BellSouth last week and, at 30, appears poised for a major breakthrough. He was 6-under yesterday after birdying No.11 lower than anybody else got but then Augusta National bit him back. (Fortunately, it was only a superficial wound and didn't require a tetanus shot.)
"I'm not really thinking about [winning for the first time in the U.S.]," he said. "I'm more concerned with how I'm performing, how I'm feeling about my play. But I suppose the time will come when I'll put less focus on the technicalities of the swing and more on getting the job done."
Even if he wins the Masters, though, he has no plans to join the PGA Tour, as so many others have done. He's quite content "being a world player," he said. "I still believe you've got to play in Australia, which has some of the best golf courses in the world, as well as in South Africa, Asia, South America all over the world. If you only play [in the U.S.], it limits your ability to play elsewhere."
Welcome news, indeed, for imperiled American golfers. If only Sergio, Ernie et al. were as fond of accumulating frequent flyer miles.

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