Men's Golf: Majors, the Waning US Presence and the Good of the Game
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On a day at the 2011 Masters made for soft putts and great shots, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, part of a huge international contingent, overwhelmed everyone with his sub-par holes in each of the final four holes in closing a brilliant final round. By the time Tiger Woods was a distant memory despite his improved play and tie for the lead, Schwartzel had captured the hearts and souls of everyone watching.
Thin, in shape and certain to win more tournaments, Schwartzel provided a sharp contrast to Angel Cabrera from Argentina, the only out-of-shape golfer in the top ten.
There were many great moments in this tournament, including horrible heartbreak and great play. The worst heartbreak was an errant shot from the tee by still co-leader Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy had managed to slop across the front nine but was still in a tie for the lead despite a clearly crumbling game. With his errant tee shot, he might as well have been out of bounds. Indeed, he might have been better off if he had been. Clearly, his challenge for the Masters title was over.
From the pack emerged players who will be seen again. Two Australians, Jason Day and Adam Scott, appeared likely to win until Schwartzel commenced his crushing play to overwhelm the field.
Seeming as solid as they come, with Schwartzel's historic final four holes making him the only player in history to play each of the final four holes on Sunday at Augusta under par, Day seemed to have the best chance despite his and Scott's tie for second at the end.
We will see them both again, but for me, Day seems to have the best chance to become the better golfer.
Now that we have four players from outside the United States who hold all four major championships, a feat to my knowledge never accomplished before, it is time to review the state of the game and whether the disappearance of US players from this leaderboard and others is good for the game.
First, a bit of history.
Although there may be many better descriptions of the Majors in golf, the following is certainly one of the best, from Wikipedia.
The majors originally consisted of the Open Championship, the British Amateur or The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Amateur. With the introduction of the Masters Tournament in 1934, and the rise of professional golf in the late 1940s and 1950s, the term "major championships" eventually came to describe the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the (U.S.) PGA Championship. It is difficult to determine when the definition changed to include the current four tournaments, although many trace it to Arnold Palmer's 1960 season, when after winning the Masters and the U.S. Open to start the season he remarked that if he could win the Open Championship and PGA Championship to finish the season, he would complete "a grand slam of his own" to rival Bobby Jones's 1930 feat. Until that time, many U.S. players also considered the Western Open as one of golf's "majors", and the British PGA Matchplay Championship was as important to British and Commonwealth professionals as the PGA Championship was to Americans.
Few realize how recent the concept of the current golf Majors are, much less that its genesis may be from Arnold Palmer. There were other "made-for-TV" events like the World Championship of Golf. But in truth, there is little doubt but that the players would have at least one other "major" in the books, the Players Championship, if it were up to them.
Of course, history shows that the "majors" are also a creature of American thinking and ingenuity. While there were always great European players—after all, the tiny country of Scotland is at least the favorite for the invention of golf and continues to have very good players—Ireland and several countries on continental Europe including Germany and Spain are in the mix.
As far as other countries, South Africa entered the fray with Bobby Locke but became hugely famous in golf largely due to Gary Player, who joined the PGA Tour in 1957.
Most would be amazed that Player ranks third with at least 166 professional golf wins and that Roberto De Vicenzo (Argentina) and Sam Snead, notably with only one American, have more professional wins.
Should we be worried about the absence of US players from the leaderboards?
It was said that Schwartzel comes from a chicken farm, a statement that one commentator quickly corrected to state that the farm was his mother's and that his father worked in a more notable profession.
But there is nothing wrong with chicken farming. Indeed, one of the most misunderstood facts about golf is that many players have lesser means, as well as many of the greats, including Player, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan.
Unlike Bobby Jones, who was a lawyer and whose single year Grand Slam stands as the only one ever achieved, these players were not the country club type.
Ben Hogan's father was a blacksmith, and committed suicide when Hogan was nine. The family was very poor.
Sam Snead made his first set of clubs from branches and often played barefoot.
Arnold Palmer was also relatively poor. His father was a golf pro at a country club.
The wealth of American golfers today is a new phenomenon. Some were born into relative wealth. Others had more modest means.
Yet, for even the average American, the level of living is far higher than the averages anywhere else. And perhaps this is the first reason for there being a much more international flavor in golf and tennis today.
Too much money for other things. Too much dedication required. A bit like tennis today. Where are the US players to replace Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, both of whom are getting a bit long in the tooth?
I can remember rooting against Player, not because he wore black and was by any means a bad guy. But because of his country.
South Africa practiced horrible discrimination through its policy of apartheid. The separateness of blacks from whites was greater and more evil than that in the South of the United States before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ended the concept of "separate but equal."
I was so incensed by the United States' continuing relationship with South Africa that I terminated my free subscription to the Chicago Tribune and wrote a scathing letter to the editor when it wrote an opinion piece on how necessary South Africa was for our military and thus why we need to continue our diplomatic relations with that country and even support its regime.
This was unfair to Player, who moved to the United States and is reputed never to have been prejudiced against blacks. And unfair to my friends from South Africa, who I met and got to know somewhat later, liking them very much and again finding no prejudice.
Yet it was only this year that I realized that I was no longer against South Africa, when another South African was competing to win the Masters. And that I no longer cheered only for Americans, as so many of us do.
I actually welcomed the apparent domination of players outside the United States. It makes things more interesting, broadens our horizons, and lets us learn more about these other places.
The only thing missing are the made-for-TV pieces on these players that will, in the same vein as this year's piece on Phil Mickelson, bring the players more to life, exposing the human side of the top players in the world.
I cannot say that I would not like Americans more dominant on the leaderboard again. The loss of US players is a bit of a tragedy, which should rectify itself over time. But golf in the United States, unlike most other sports, has always been very international.
In fact, between 1988 and 1994, six of the seven Masters winners were from countries other than the United States.
There will be some who will continue to claim that Tiger Woods's lack of wins is bad for golf.
But Woods now garners many who root against him winning because of his recent past. And many of the Woods majors, including those in 2008 and 2009, were bettered by CBS on Saturday.
While Tiger Woods was in contention on Saturday and Sunday, give the competitive field the boost here. Woods was still well below the leader on Saturday, but the ratings were better than with Phil Mickelson when he made his run in 2010 with all the drama of his wife's cancer.
So we have a new tableau emerging for professional golf. The current dominance of the international non-US set of players who seem better equipped for playing golf today.
The daring do of many US players, the rallying style of Palmer, is seemingly much more loved by Americans than Jack Nicklaus' steady golf play. Perhaps this is why, when Schwartzel was looking for someone to help, Nicklaus was ready to please, helping him win this Masters championship.
He surely finds Schwartzel more compatible than Woods, and surely dislikes the media's continuing fawning over its fallen idol.
And perhaps he too thinks that the internationalization of golf is a very good thing.
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