Overseas players migrating to PGA Tour
Charles Howell and Ian Poulter were acting like boys comparing their toys after Christmas.
Poulter, an emerging star on the European Tour and the No. 42-ranked golfer in the world, eyeballed Howell's flashy Range Rover SUV -- replete with chromed spinner rims -- and began peppering him with technical questions about installing stereo equipment, video-game hookups and DVD players.
Then they moved on to big-ticket items. Given the weakness of the dollar abroad, Poulter, an Englishman, explained to Howell that now's the ideal time for European players to invest in pricier American fare, like real estate.
"So I did," Poulter said.
Poulter this week bought a home at Orlando's Lake Nona Golf Club, with young countryman Justin Rose expected to follow suit soon. Sure, the dollar may be struggling in terms of its financial faring against the Euro and British pound, but there are nonetheless a lot more greenbacks at stake in the States, where accomplished international players are steadily lining up at the pay window.
Expect them to get more bang for their buck in 2004.
Long the promised land in terms of worldwide circuits, Howell and others on the PGA Tour this year will see the full-time addition of several more top international stars, including Ireland's Darren Clarke and Australians Adam Scott and Stephen Leaney, who all enter the year in the top 31 in the world rankings.
Short of five-time defending Player of the Year Tiger Woods winning more than his share of dough, it's become almost impossible to predict what trends and themes will dominate the unpredictable PGA Tour calendar as it plays out. Two years ago, there were 18 first-time winners. In 2003, there were 15 events won by players age 40 or older.
But based on sheer volume, as the 2004 PGA Tour season begins Thursday at the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, the internationals seemingly are poised to make huge noise.
Twelve years ago, players from four countries, including the United States, had status on Tour. Of the 18 international players currently ranked in the world top 40, a total of 15 plan to play at least 15 events in the States this year. They represent 10 countries.
"It's amazing. You see a lot more guys coming over here," said Howell as Poulter bashed balls nearby on Orlando's Leadbetter Academy practice range. "They obviously are top-ranked players in the world, and they want to get a chance to take on guys like Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh on a full-time basis. I think it's fantastic. I think this tour is still growing and continuing to prove why it's the best and biggest tour there is."
Be it via promotions from the Nationwide Tour, Qualifying School or other means, the internationals keep coming to America. Among the new international faces to earn a Tour card at Q-School was medalist Mathias Gronberg, a multiple winner on the European Tour who should be a solid player in the United States. He was joined by Daniel Chopra of Sweden, Arjun Atwal of India, Kevin Na of South Korea, Tjaart Van Der Walt of South Africa, long-hitting Scott Hend of Australia and Hirofumi Miyasi of Japan.
While world tours have improved markedly over the past decade, the PGA Tour remains Valhalla for those with the moxie -- and game -- to play against the best. If that sounds like jingoism, it isn't.
"Everyone from India wants to play here," said Atwal, who became the first player from India to earn his Tour card. "If they are seriously playing golf, they want to play on this tour. No one (cares) about any other tour. The goal is to get here."
The goal then becomes to win here. Plenty already have succeeded, of course, as internationals accounted for 14 victories in 48 tournaments last year. Of the five players who have won at least one tournament in each of the past three years, two are internationals -- Japan's Shigeki Maruyama and Retief Goosen, a South African.
The accolades continue. Singh, a native of Fiji, became the first international player in seven years to win the money title last year. Moreover, Els has promised to cut down on his energy-sapping worldwide travel in 2004 in order to emphasize his 18 or so events on the U.S. schedule. He won seven titles worldwide in 2003, including twice in America.
"If he plays 18-20 times here, he could really be the player to challenge Tiger," said Tour veteran John Cook, a golf analyst for USA Network. "Vijay is a great player, but Ernie is the guy with the talent, the size and the skill to win. He is not intimidated by Tiger."
As for the latter, thanks in part to an infusion of more global talent, Els believes the Woods typhoon has been downgraded to a tropical storm.
"I think the Tiger effect is not as strong as it used to be," Els said this week. "Not as huge as it used to be three or four years ago. Tiger has been on Tour seven or eight years now, so the effect has calmed down a little bit.
"The standard of play on Tour the last three years has definitely increased a hell of a lot."
So has the number of blue-chippers from abroad. Poulter and Rose still will play primarily on the European Tour, but Poulter plans to play in eight U.S. events in 2004, including the Bay Hill Invitational.
Clarke, ranked No. 11 in the world, said he plans to play 16 times in the United States this year, while Leaney -- who seriously contended at the U.S. Open last year -- has designs on playing in 30 events. Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson, No. 17 in the world, will play a heavy early U.S. schedule through the Masters.
Scott, who won the Deutsche Bank Championship last year in Boston for his first U.S. victory, will play at least 15. Scott, considered one of the best young players in the world, could be primed for a breakout year now that he has secured his PGA Tour card through 2006.
"In the past, I've played PGA Tour events, and even though I thought I could win, I thought more about making enough money to get my card in America," Scott said. "Now I can go out with the mindset that I can just get in position to win.
"That's how I've been playing in Europe for a few years because I got my card over there. That's how I'm going to play over here now."
Add him to the list of talented inbound players collecting outbound money. We're not economists, but if this somehow impacts the U.S. trade deficit and hurts the dollar abroad, Poulter's home purchase seems smarter by the hour.
"It seemed like the right time," he said.
Likewise in `04, the internationals' time is now.
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