The notion has been pursed on golfers’ lips for months now, but not until Monday afternoon at Bay Hill could a declaration of “being back” slip freely from the tip of every tongue.
It’s official now: American golf is back on top of the world.
What, you were expecting something else?
Yeah, yeah, yeah – Tiger Woods resumed his birthright as the No. 1 golfer on the planet Monday, winning for the third time this season and snatching the top rank away from his slumbering heir Rory McIlroy. It marks the first time since Woods relinquished the post in October 2010 that the No. 1 ranking is back in American hands – having bounced around from Germany to England to Northern Ireland in the intervening 21/2 years.
But for all obvious ramifications of Woods’ aura being restored as the Masters Tournament approaches, it is merely the brightest symbol of the rebirth of America’s strength in the game it’s largely dominated since Francis Ouimet sent a message to golf’s founding fathers a century ago.
Americans have won all 13 PGA Tour events staged this season so far, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1989 (before Nick Faldo ended the streak by winning his first green jacket). That season was the last time the Americans swept every tour event leading up to Augusta. This year has two more Texas events wedged in before the Masters, but the streak is notable nonetheless.
The last time Americans won every event through the Masters? That would be 1984, when Ben Crenshaw won at Augusta to run the season-opening streak to 14-0 before Faldo again ended it the next week at Hilton Head.
In 1982, Americans went 14-0 through the Masters before Australia’s Bob Shearer won the Tallahassee Open the next week. U.S. golfers then swept the remaining 29 tour events that season.
The current 13-tournament streak is the longest on the PGA Tour since 2007 when Americans captured 14 in a row between Padraig Harrington’s win at the British Open and Mike Weir’s victory in the Fall Series. Before that you would have to go back another decade, when Americans won the last 22 events of 1996 and first seven in ’97 before the run was snapped (once again) by Faldo at Riviera.
Golf – even on the PGA Tour – has become an increasingly global game over the past three decades and America’s strength has been greatly challenged. International players comprise almost 30 percent of the fully exempt roster on the PGA Tour this year, and they’ve accounted for roughly a third of every tournament field.
In the two World Golf Championship events played this year, international players outnumbered Americans 43-21 in the Match Play and 40-25 at Doral, yet the U.S. claimed the top two finishers in both of them.
The last time international players didn’t win at least 10 events on the PGA Tour was 1998 (nine). They won a record 26 events (Vijay Singh accounting for nine of them) on the U.S. tour in 2004, including 13 during a 17-week stretch of the summer.
Europe had a strong run of success at Augusta in the 1980s and ’90s, coinciding with its turning the tables in the biennial Ryder Cup matches. The South Africans and Australians also have long lists of major stars with major portfolios.
But the questions about America’s place at the pinnacle of the game had never been questioned more than in the previous few years, largely coinciding with Woods straying from his usual perch.
In 2010-11, European Tour players won six consecutive majors. Not since 2006 have Americans won more than two majors in a season. International players won 19 and 14 PGA Tour events in 2010-11 but only 11
The 2006 season marked a real global shift as the effects of world-ranking based qualifying criteria in majors and other significant events started to really transform the landscape. That was the last year Americans had more qualifiers for the Masters than international players, outnumbering them 47-43.
Starting in 2007, international players have outnumbered Americans at Augusta every year – the high-water mark coming in 2009 when there were 14 more foreign-born players than Americans (55-41).
That’s a long way from the old days when international players at Augusta were truly “foreign,” as they were commonly referred to on the CBS broadcast. There were only four international players in the inaugural Masters in 1934 and zero in the first post-WWII staging in 1946. That number typically hung between one and five until the late 1950s.
There were 14 in 1958 when Arnold Palmer won his first Masters and 26 in 1997 when Woods won his first. Augusta National changed the qualifications in 1999 to include the top 50 in the world rankings, and the international participation took off.
Now the U.S. is starting to gradually repopulate the top end of the world rankings. This week in 2009, there were only 14 Americans in the top 50 and just 15 a year later. That number rose to 17 in 2011, though Americans held none of the top four spots.
Currently there are 22 Americans in the top 50, including five of the top 10. Instead of being held up by aging stars, younger and prime talent like Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson are helping take the reigns. Even fresher stars like Rickie Fowler and Russell Henley are stepping up close behind.
Of course, it’s No. 1 Woods driving the train again. He’s just not the only American on board.