Originally created 12/19/06

International players show their increasing dominance



The outsourcing of the Masters Tournament continues to escalate.

With the early release of the year-ending world golf rankings Monday, the international roster of anticipated 2007 Masters starters has outflanked the Americans for the first time. It won't be long before they'll have to consider calling it the Augusta International Golf Club, with a new logo that incorporates a silhouette of the entire globe.

Of the sixteen players who qualified Monday through the top 50 rankings, only Ben Crane represents the home team. The other 15 players hail from nine different countries, including the first golfer from India (Jeev Milkha Singh) to make it into the Masters field.

That influx of foreign talent raises the international total to a record 47 players who will compete in April. It would be 48 if three-time champion Nick Faldo hadn't decided to move into the CBS broadcast booth.

Crane's inclusion swells the total of American starters to 42 - the fewest since 1938, when the 42-man field included 40 Americans. Unless at least five unqualified Americans get off to a hot start in 2007 to make the final cuts in March, the probability looms large that the host country's players will be outnumbered for the first time in any of the 71 Masters.

If you exclude Champions Tour eligible players (50 or older), the trade imbalance becomes even more lopsided. The international gap would widen to 46-35.

Maybe these numbers aren't too surprising considering the Americans' fortunes in international competition over the past decade.

The Europeans have won five of the past six Ryder Cups, and the U.S. holds a narrow 2-1-1 record in the past four Presidents Cups against players from the rest of the world.

From the beginning, tournament founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts emphasized the importance of having foreign-born players in the field to ensure that the best players in the world would compete. However, the Masters has come a long way since 1957, when a record 90 Americans teed up and only 11 international players did. But since the Masters started basing a large portion of its eligibility on the world rankings in 1999, the influx of foreign players has been an upward trend.

Foreign-born players comprise a larger percentage every year on the PGA Tour, but it's in the World Golf Ranking where the disparity is most noticeable. Of the current top 50 players in the world, Americans are outnumbered 37-13 despite having the best players at the top.

Tiger Woods (20.41 points average) is nearly 12 points ahead of No. 2 Jim Furyk (8.88), who is more than 1.5 points ahead of No. 3 Phil Mickelson. But less than one point separates No. 30 (Rod Pampling, 2.93) and No. 63 (Steve Stricker, 2.00).

It is in the middle ground where the splitting of hairs clearly favors the foreign players who post better results against weaker fields more consistently.

Just ask Justin Rose.

The young British player was ranked inside the top 40 when he played primarily on the European PGA Tour, and he qualified for Masters in 2003 and 2004. He was the 36-hole leader at Augusta National in 2004 before finishing 22nd.

But since Rose made the move to the U.S. PGA Tour full-time in 2004, he hasn't made it back to Augusta, despite reasonable success.

In 2006, Rose posted eight top-15, five top-10 and one runner-up finish on what is the most competitive professional tour in the world.

He finished 47th on the money list. Yet at No. 51 in the year-ending rankings, Rose finishes 1/100th of a point behind Euro tour player Bradley Dredge, of Wales. Dredge had seven top-15, six top-10 and one victory on the European Tour, his lone win coming by a wide margin against a field that included only two other players ranked among the top 50 in the world.

But Dredge - who has made only one cut (t-28 in the 2002 British Open) in six major starts - is booked for Augusta next spring while Rose - with eight made cuts and two top-five finishes in 13 major starts - is not.

With the advent of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup season, some qualification changes are inevitable for 2008. Will the money list run through the Tour Championship in September or the Fall Series finale in November?

New Masters Chairman Billy Payne said last May that he was studying the issue of adding PGA tournament winners to the automatic qualifiers list.

"I think it's a probability that you will see it sometime soon in the future," Payne said, without elaborating on whether the Fall Series winners would be given equal consideration.

It's not soon enough, unfortunately, for nine American winners in 2006, including former U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin and frequent major contender Jeff Maggert.

They were among the 11 players to win a PGA Tour event this year who haven't met any of the other qualifying standards. If the players who had won since last year's Masters were added, the current field of qualifiers would be a level 49-49 between Americans and internationals.

That's the kind of balance Augusta National will probably be looking for. Until then, American golfers have another area to play catch-up with the rest of the world.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com