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Stranger than Fiction: Foreign Players just Don't Play well in the PGA

By: Jay Flemma


We've studied for this test before: Tiger takes the lead, Tiger increases the lead, Tiger runs away from the field, Tiger takes a victory lap in the sun, perhaps waving to Phil from the first tee as Mickelson finishes on 18.

Golf in the age of Tiger Woods dramatically limits the number of chances others have to win a major. He wins 28% of the time he tees it up on the PGA Tour. Golf Channel's Rich Lerner said, "Most Hall of Fame golfers got in on the strength of winning about 5% of the time. What do you call 28%?"

I call it a statistical outlier, a number so outside the norm it can be thrown out of consideration. But here is another head-scratcher for you: the PGA Championship has only been won by an international player 11 times out of 91. That's roughly once in every 8 starts. Consider this chart of the winner's nationality:

USA: 74
South Africa and Australia: 4 each
Fiji, Scotland, and England: 2 each
Ireland: 1

Moreover, foreigners won the first three (Jim Barnes twice, then Jock Hutchinson), and then only twice until 1962. Europeans in particular have had little success here. They have won 49 British Opens, 17 U.S. Opens, seven Masters, but only four PGAs. Before Padraig Harrington's dramatic win at Oakland Hills last year, the last European to win was Scotland's Tommy Armour all the way back in 1930.

Why is this tournament a graveyard for foreigners?

"I have no idea," said a perplexed David Feherty. "There's no reason for it, it's the strongest international field of the year. It's a mystery isn't it? It's like Area 51."

Is it really the strongest international field? One fan and golf architecture expert, Phil McDade, wasn't sure. The proportion of international players, relative to the field, is lower at the PGA than both Augusta (which has always solicited international players) and the Open Championship," he wrote on GolfClubAtlas.com. "The nature of U.S. Open qualifying means that only the very best international players take part in the U.S. Open. Thus, although there may be 'more' international players at the PGA than ever before, they are competing against a very deep field."

"I wonder if it's the travel," pondered ESPN's Tom Rinaldi. "It's the dog days of summer, and with all the flying and playing every day and the demands on their schedules, those guys have to be tired."

One international player agreed. "Well, don't let my mates know who I am, or they'll think they've got one up on me, but yeah, I'm wiped. I can't wait to get home and have a blow," he said wiping his face with a towel. "I'm dead tired."

He better not be; he has a lot of golf left to play. There's still the FedEx Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Race to Dubai. Is golf that exhausting? "I'll take a shot at their life," said Marty Olsson, a Minnesota fan attending the PGA Championship. Well don't be so eager. It's not just all about playing golf. There are significant time constraints such as appearances, overseas travel, business administration and, of course, their families.

Some of the international writers had a few salient points about the history of international participation. "From 1932-1991, no Irishman played in the PGA Championship," said venerable Irish writer Dermot Gileece. He also noted that the great international players Peter Thompson and Bobby Locke never played well either. "Thompson won five Open Championships, but never a PGA Championship," Gileece stated. "One reason could be that the PGA has only been using the World Rankings for 10 years."

Another European writer was a little less complimentary. "It's a glorified PGA Tour stop. It's a home event for the USA, Glory's Last Shot . . . for Americans!" he raged.

He has a point. The tournament frequently plays center-line, target golf courses like routine tour stops. Medinah may be the worst example of all, a course that gets selected because Chicago need a big venue and because of what Robert Trent Jones means to golf. But it's drab, penal architecture designs like Medinah that drag down the stature of the PGA Championship in comparison to the other majors. Lately, the PGA has tried to move to older, classic venues like Oakland Hills (which saw a European win), Baltusrol and Southerrn Hills. But for every one of those classic gems, we get three visits to medicinal Medinah, vanilla Valhalla, and Hazardous Hazeltine. On their one trip to linksy Whistling Straits, Vijay Singh, the big Fijian won. Look for a foreign-born player to win when they return there next year.

Perhaps if the PGA went to courses designed by classic designers like Alister Mackenzie, C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor or Charles Banks, the older styles - based on the great courses of the U.K., might be more suited to foreign players, who have golf games more diverse than just center-line aerial attacks. With a little more length, perhaps Forsgate in New Jersey or National Golf Links of America would be an excellent choice. Of the modern architects, Tom Doak is building masterpiece after masterpiece - beautiful, challenging and strategic. Ballyneal has nothing but room. Build a few hotels around this course in Colorado and watch everyone fall in love with the place. If we could get the fans out to southwest Oregon, Pacific Dunes would captivate the world. Happily, we'll see Whistling Straits in 2015 as well as next year and the wonderful Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 2012.

Finally, there is one other reason that, for now, dominates all others: we live in the age of Tiger. This Sunday, he will win his fifth PGA in 11 years. In his last 13 rounds, 11 were in the 60s. It's a virtual certainty he will pass Hagan and Nicklaus and own the record for most PGA titles in the near future, perhaps at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011. It will almost be a relief for him to finally pass Nicklaus. Maybe then we won't have to watch major championships that are over halfway after they start.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.