Foreign players shine at Augusta National

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

The trade deficit for April could be in line for a big hit. Because unless Tiger Woods can hold off a leaderboard packed with more foreigners than the U.N. Security Council, another one of those expensive green jackets is headed overseas.

Under the best conditions, winning the Masters demands precision, patience, toughness, imagination and most important, the kind of stubborn pride that refuses to settle for second best. Under the wet, long course conditions this year, all those qualities are required along with a willingness to shrug off adversity.

Unfortunately, precious few American golfers today fit that bill.

Exactly two fought their way onto the leaderboard at Augusta National by the close of play Saturday. And only Woods, who shot 66 for a share of the lead, had the claws and the chutzpah necessary to reach the top and stay there.

''Look at the guys that have been playing well the last six months, the last few weeks,'' Woods said.

One of them, South African Retief Goosen, has already won three times this year on three continents. Goosen shot 69, including a bogey at the last hole that dropped him into a tie at 205 with Woods. Two strokes back was Vijay Singh, the Fijian who won his green jacket in 2000 and his last PGA Tour event just two weeks ago in Houston.

The only other Yank among the top 10 was Phil Mickelson, who is 0-for-38 in major tournaments heading into Sunday's final round.

He shared fourth place with South African Ernie Els and Spaniard Sergio Garcia, and was trailed closely by another Spaniard who already owns two green jackets, a Dane, an Irishman and an Argentine.

Mickelson didn't sound particularly confident about his chances.

''It's not like Americans are the only ones who play this game well,'' he said.

Actually, most Americans haven't played well at Augusta for years.

Nine of the last 14 Masters have ended with foreigners slipping on green jackets, and except for Woods -- who won last year and in 1997 -- the Americans' future doesn't look much brighter than the recent past.

The last Yank to win here before Woods was Mark O'Meara, who turned 45 this year and didn't play his way into the weekend. Neither did 50-year-old Ben Crenshaw, who won in 1995.

And the few other Americans who had the guts and game to contend regularly on this singular layout -- such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and even Tom Watson -- long ago reached that age where skills, nerves, or both, desert them somewhere over the course of four grueling rounds.

It was Palmer's double-bogey from the bunker at the 18th in 1961 that opened the door for Gary Player to become the first international to win. It was another 19 years before another foreign player, Seve Ballesteros of Spain, won a green jacket. Since then, the demand for the fuller, American-cut version of the jackets has been declining.

''It just shows the strength of golf around the world,'' said Garcia, whose fellow Spaniards, Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal, have claimed two Masters titles each.

It shows what competition will do. It's sharper on the tours in Europe and Asia because the purses are smaller, which in turn makes for hungrier players. Shotmaking, too, is more refined outside the United States because the weather is rougher and the courses not as well groomed, nor nearly as predictable as the cookie-cutter layouts on the PGA Tour.

Distracted by the easy money that makes millionaires out of even mediocre players, there has been a dearth of great American players in the generation between Watson and Woods. At Augusta, that gap provided opportunities that were happily snapped up by Englishman Nick Faldo, who won three times, and German Bernhard Langer, who joined Olazabal and Woods as the only two-time winners since 1985.

The aging of Europe's ''Fab Five'' -- multiple Masters champs Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer and single winners Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle -- was supposed to signal the end of foreign domination of the Masters. Instead, it appears only the names have changed and only Woods has the blend of talent, grit and creativity to get in their way.

It's hardly a promising start for Americans in what's turned out to be a Ryder Cup year.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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