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Match Play highlights international growth

The first World Golf Championship brought together players from 17 countries, a collection of flags from Paraguay to the Philippines flying over La Costa Resort.

It was strictly Stars & Stripes by the weekend.

The Americans always had numbers in their favor, which partly explains why it was an All-American semifinal at the inaugural Match Play Championship. Even in the years when Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson were knocked out early, there was always David Toms or Jeff Maggert or Kevin Sutherland to carry the flag.

But as this tournament enters its eighth year, American dominance in world golf is dwindling.

There were 40 Americans in the 64-man field when the Accenture Match Play Championship began in 1999. As recently as two years ago, Americans made up more than half the field. But when the brackets were set Monday night, the United States reached a new low with only 25 players.

Woods was the only American with a No. 1 seed in the four brackets, another first.

Whether this is a case of Americans getting worse or the world getting better is up for debate. The Match Play Championship field is determined by the world ranking. And more international players -- Europeans and Australians in particular -- have joined the PGA Tour, earned more points and climbed higher in the rankings.

"There's no sliding for Americans," Ian Poulter said Tuesday. "It's just that there are good golfers from around the world wanting to play good golf. And they're wanting to play on a couple of levels -- and that would be the PGA Tour. It's a progression of interest over the last 10 years from Tiger playing. Everybody wants to compete against him."

Poulter, an Englishman who reached the semifinals last year before losing to Toms, is among a record 17 players from Europe who qualified for the Match Play Championship. Europe had 11 players the first year, and the numbers have steadily increased each year.

World parity also is reflected in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

Europe has dominated the Ryder Cup since 1995, winning four of the last five, and the 18 1/2 -9 1/2 margin two years ago at Oakland Hills was its biggest rout. There always seems to be an unheralded player who emerges as the star -- David Gilford and Phillip Price come to mind -- but that's no longer the case.

David Howell hit the pivotal shot at Oakland Hills, a 6-iron into 8 feet on the 17th hole in a better-ball match Saturday morning that stopped a U.S. rally. If no one knew him then, this is the same guy who beat Woods head-to-head on the weekend at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai last November.

The Presidents Cup was a tie in 2003, and only the late heroics of Chris DiMarco kept it from being another one last year. The International team might be even stronger than Europe, and everyone knows theirs names -- from Retief Goosen to Vijay Singh to Michael Campbell. Most fans even know the names of guys who got left off that team.

Still, perhaps the best evidence of this shift from American dominance comes at La Costa.

The ratio of Americans to Europeans in 1999 was 40-11. Now it is 25-17, and Europe lost one when Thomas Bjorn of Denmark withdrew with a sore neck (Sergio Garcia previously was replaced by Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland).

"We're catching up," Colin Montgomerie said. "I think we had a particularly good year the last two years, especially in Europe, where a lot of the young guys and a lot of guys that had potential have now come through. It's one thing showing potential, but it's another proving it. All the players deserve this spot here."

Perhaps of greater concern to U.S. golf is the emergence of young players.

The best young players on the PGA Tour carry international passports -- Garcia of Spain, Adam Scott of Australia, even Rory Sabbatini of South Africa, whose victory in the Nissan Open was his third on the PGA Tour. No American under the age 30 has more than two PGA Tour victories.

If you want to see young American stars, go to Hawaii this week, where Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis are playing on the LPGA Tour.

"There tends to be a lot of worldwide players coming through now, more than ever, international players coming through," Montgomerie said. "And since Tiger -- he's old, he's in his 30s -- there hasn't really been that progression that you might have thought after him here. It seems to have taken place internationally more than it has in the States."

Indeed, this is an aging American group at La Costa.

Nine of the 25 Americans at the Match Play Championship are in their 40s, with six others at 35 or older. The average age for this group of Americans is 36.3.

This is not to suggest American golf is slipping. That won't be the case as long as Woods (30) and Mickelson (35) are around. Big-hitting J.B. Holmes might be the best hope for youth, although no one should get carried away with one victory in Phoenix.

And Americans still dominate where it matters, in the majors. The last European to win a major was Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999. Americans have won 18 of the last 25 majors since, with Woods capturing nine of those.

But at this rate, the World Golf Championship will truly be global events.

Even if they're all played in America.

February 22, 2006


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