Americans searching for a major breakthrough

Updated: June 17, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The U.S. Open -- and the major championships in general -- are no longer simply the domain of American golfers.

When you consider that four of the past five U.S. Opens have been won by foreign-born players, and that only two Americans not named Tiger and Phil have won major championships starting with the 2004 Masters, there is really no arguing the fact.

Major Problems?

Since the 2004 British Open, there have been 18 majors contested in men's professional golf. Of the American-born players whose first name is not Tiger or Phil, Zach Johnson (2007 Masters) is the only U.S. player to capture a major. Below is a list of U.S.-born major winners not named Woods or Mickelson since 2000:

Player Tournament
Zach Johnson 2007 Masters
Todd Hamilton 2004 British Open
Shaun Micheel 2003 PGA
Ben Curtis 2003 British Open
Jim Furyk 2003 U.S. Open
Rich Beem 2002 PGA Championship
David Toms 2001 PGA Championship
David Duval 2001 British Open

The game has gone global, and that's really not a new development. Since the mid-1980s, when a slew of European golfers (Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal) were fitted for green jackets at the Masters, American dominance began to erode.

Since then we've seen Australians Greg Norman, Steve Elkington and Geoff Ogilvy win majors, as well as South Africans Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman. An Irishman, Padraig Harrington, has won three of the past seven, while an Argentine, Angel Cabrera, has won two during that time.

It is probably only a matter of time before a player from Japan or South Korea wins a major, too.

Why the change?

You can easily cite statistics that show the growth of golf in foreign nations at a time when it has remained stagnant in the United States. This is undoubtedly true in European countries such as Spain, Sweden and Germany, as well as the Asian nations of Japan and Korea.

But access to the major championships has also played a big role.

Top-notch Europeans Sam Torrance and Mark James, for example, had difficulty getting into the Masters and U.S. Open when they were in their prime. Despite immense success on the European Tour, there was no Official World Golf Ranking from which to gain an exemption. Now both tournaments give spots to the top 50 in the world.

"More good players are playing the U.S. full time now, which probably makes tournaments like this a little less intimidating," Ogilvy said. "If you played your whole career in Europe and just lobbed over for one week for this tournament, it's a different kettle of fish. But if you played two or three years on this tour. ... the U.S. Open is like a U.S. tour event on steroids. It's like everything's bigger. The course is longer. It's narrow, tougher. The rough's hardest and the greens faster.

"More players are playing here on a regular basis and that's probably why we see them contend more in majors. But it's nice."

In 2007, for the first time in its history, the Masters field had more foreign-born players than Americans, a trend that continued in each of the past two years. The number of non-Americans finding their way into the other majors has also risen.

So it only makes sense that Americans are finding it more difficult to win the four biggest tournaments in the game.

Of course, you can skew the numbers to make an argument.

Over the past five years, Todd Hamilton (2004 British Open) and Zach Johnson (2007 Masters) are the only Americans other than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to win major championships.

But if you include Woods and Mickelson -- who have combined to win nine majors in that time frame -- Americans have won 11 of the 21 majors played. And no players have won more majors in that period than the six by Woods and the three by Mickelson. Harrington has matched Mickelson with three, while Cabrera has two.

It is interesting to note how things have shifted at the U.S. Open.

From 1946, the first Open after World War II, Americans won every year until South Africa's Gary Player in 1965. England's Tony Jacklin won the title in 1970, and then there wasn't another foreign-born golfer to win until Australia's David Graham in 1981. South Africa's Ernie Els won in 1994 and 1997.

Starting in 2001, it's been foreigners 5 to 3: South Africa's Retief Goosen (2001, 2004), New Zealand's Michael Campbell (2005), Ogilvy (2006) and Cabrera (2007). Woods won twice in that period (2002 and 2008) while Jim Furyk in 2003 was the only other American to capture the title.

An idea worth exploring

The announcement this week that both the men's and women's U.S. Opens will be played at the same venue in back-to-back weeks in 2014 is a welcome concept that should only help the game when the two championships are played at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014.

Now for an even more radical idea: why not try playing both tournaments at the same place in the same week?

You would obviously need to use different courses, but there are plenty of venues around the country that boast more than one championship course at the same site. And it would be a true celebration of American golf.

Yes, there would be numerous logistical hurdles, including accommodations for double the number of players and staff, as well as all the issues TV would have to tackle.

And you might have to consider staggering the starts and finishes, perhaps starting one championship a day earlier than the other and concluding one a day earlier.

But for at least two days, you could have both tournaments going on at the same complex, allowing golf fans a 2-for-1 treat. And while there would likely be the need to show the tournaments on different television networks for the sake of each competition, you could certainly have periods when they were both on at the same time, with a flurry of golf action dominating the telecast as they went back and forth between two tournaments on two courses.

This would have to be a once-a-decade phenomenon, as it is likely the logistical concerns would make it too tough to pull off more than that. But if the 2014 experiment goes well, perhaps this is something to consider well down the road.

A look at this week's venue

There is a reason the USGA returned to Bethpage State Park's Black course so quickly: It was a huge hit in 2002. That year, for the first time, the U.S. Open went to a true municipal course, a place where the everyman could tee it up. That proved to be very popular, and the golf course did not disappoint, as Tiger Woods was the only player to finish under par.

The course was considered a brute then and it isn't any easier now. More than 200 yards has been added to the par-70 layout, making it a robust 7,445 yards. Three par-4 holes -- Nos. 7, 10 and 12 -- measure more than 500 yards. As for birdie holes? You might consider the par-5 fourth (517) and the par-3 14th (158) the best chances. The par-4 second measures just 389 yards, but it is a dogleg to the left, so it's not like players can bomb a drive to set up an easy pitch to the green.

Rain and cool temperatures are in the forecast, which would make for an even longer track. True, shots to the greens might hold, and errant drives might have a better chance of staying in the fairway. But players are going to be faced with some long approach shots.

There are five courses at the Bethpage complex, the first of which opened in 1935. The Black, which is a walk-only course, gets between 35,000 and 38,000 rounds per year.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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Birdies and bogeys

Birdies:

1. Brian Gay. It's hard to say what's more impressive: the fact that Gay has won twice this year without a sweat on the back nine, or that he did so Sunday in Memphis knowing a victory was his only way into the U.S. Open.

2. Anna Nordqvist. Playing in just her fifth professional tournament, Nordqvist won the LPGA Championship by four strokes after letting a five-shot lead slip to one on the back nine. The previous best finish for the 22-year-old from Sweden was a tie for 17th.

3. Nick Faldo. The six-time major champion turned broadcaster should now be addressed as "Sir." The Englishman was granted knighthood over the weekend by Queen Elizabeth II, only the second professional golfer accorded the honor. (Sir Henry Cotton was the other.)

Bogeys:

1. Padraig Harrington. The Irishman likes to play two tournaments leading into a major, and Harrington missed the cut at both the Memorial and the St. Jude Classic. It's been a very indifferent year for the three-time major winner.

2. Henrik Stenson. Since winning the Players Championship in such impressive fashion -- a final-round 66 on a difficult day -- the Swede has failed to make a cut in three starts.

3. Michelle Wie. The one-time phenom failed to make it out of sectional qualifying for the U.S. Women's Open. And to think just a few years ago Wie was trying to qualify for the men's Open.

Trust fund for Ken Green

The PGA Tour has established a trust fund for Champions Tour golfer Ken Green, who last week was seriously injured in an accident in which his brother and girlfriend were killed.

Green, who won five times on the PGA Tour and played on the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team, has endured financial struggles in recent years as he lost his game before trying to re-establish himself on the senior circuit. He was returning to Florida from a tournament in Texas in an RV when a tire blew, causing the accident that this week led to the amputation of Green's lower right leg.

Checks should be made to the Ken Green Trust and sent to P.O. Box 1811, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. 32004-1811.

Green had made more than $123,000 in 11 appearances this year on the Champions Tour.

Notables

• Ernie Els is making his 17th consecutive U.S. Open appearance, the longest such active streak. He is followed by Phil Mickelson at 16, Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods at 15, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard at 14.

• There are 15 amateurs in the 156-player field, the highest total since 1981 and the third straight year that more than 10 have made it to the Open. U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee is not in the field because he turned pro, foregoing his invitation. He then failed to make it through sectional qualifying. No amateur has won the Open since John Goodman in 1933.

• Curtis Strange remains the last Open champion to defend his title, winning in 1988 and 1989. It is the only major championship Tiger Woods has not defended.

• One of the Open's more remarkable tidbits: The last time a winner birdied the 72nd hole to win by one stroke was in 1926, when Bobby Jones did it.

• David Erdy, a sophomore at Indiana, is 19 and the youngest to play in the field. Argentina's Eduardo Romero, who won the U.S. Senior Open last year, is the oldest at 54.

Quotable

"I certainly need the loft now. When I first came out here on tour, I used a 6.5 [degree] driver, and now I'm up to 10.5. I hate to see when I get to 40, how that's going to be ... have to get a 46-inch driver and 15-degree lofted driver."
-- Tiger Woods, 33, on his change in equipment.

Catching up with last year's champ

Tiger Woods is doing just fine. The winner of last year's Open at Torrey Pines in a dramatic and memorable playoff over Rocco Mediate is also the defending champion at Bethpage, where he won his second Open title in 2002.

He comes into the tournament on a high after winning the Memorial Tournament on June 7. He shot a final-round 65 that included birdies at the final two holes to edge Jim Furyk by a stroke, winning for the 67th time in his PGA Tour career.

The victory was also his second this year and seemingly subdued all the talk about his erratic game to that point. Woods, who had struggled at times at the Players Championship and Quail Hollow Championship -- where he had lackluster finishes on Sunday but still ended up in the top 10 -- hit all 14 fairways during the final round at Muirfield Village, and 49 of 57 for the week.

Since returning from an eight-month break after knee surgery, Woods has played in seven tournaments, with six top-10s and wins at Bay Hill and the Memorial.

After winning the Open at Bethpage in 2002, Woods tied for 20th in 2003, tied for 17th in 2004, was second in 2005, missed the cut in 2006, was tied for second in 2007 and won last year.

U.S. Open picks

Horse for the course. Tiger Woods. The only player to finish under par at Bethpage in 2002, a course that will play longer due to softness, suits him even more. And it won't hurt that the USGA now has graduated rough.

Birdie buster. Jim Furyk. Starting with the Masters, Furyk has been in the top 10 in four of his six starts, with a tie for 11th at Quail Hollow. In his past three tournaments, he tied for fifth at the Players, tied for ninth at Colonial and missed a playoff by one shot at the Memorial.

Super sleeper. Rocco Mediate. It has been a strange year for Mediate, who has not missed a cut, but who also had not finished among the top 20 in any tournament. His best is a tie for 22nd at Quail Hollow. But what a story would it be if Mediate could contend at Bethpage after his playoff loss to Woods a year ago.

Winner. Paul Casey. He's a rather anonymous No. 3 in the world, but the Englishman has done it with three victories around the world. He's also been second and fifth in PGA Tour events, and has another tie for fourth in Europe. His U.S. Open record is not great, but somebody has to become the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the tournament.