Planet Golf — 21 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
American golfers on the comeback?

For those who believe in the vague political concept of American exceptionalism, you can forget about its application onto the PGA Tour the past couple years.

The seedings for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this week in Tucson reflect a  decidedly non-American perspective, continuing a trend we’ve seen since Tiger Woods went south. Foreign players are dominating the circuit. This year the No. 1 seed in the four WGC brackets are all foreign players: Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland), Martin Kaymer (Germany), Luke Donald (England) and Lee Westwood (England). Of the 64 players in the tournament, 42 are non-Americans.

Those four are prominent players among the guys who have conquered our country, taken our money and beaten our guys with impunity. Americans don’t rule professional golf as they once did for long stretches. In fact, Keegan Bradley (pictured) is the only American to win one of the four majors (the PGA) last season. Donald was the Tour’s top money winner. Donald, McIlroy, Westwood and Kaymer are 1-2-3-4 in the world rankings and Europe is the defending Ryder Cup champion.

It’s all curious because it appears this early season that the foreign ascendancy is waning. Americans have won each of the seven PGA events this year (last year at this point, two foreign players had won). Nine of the top 10 money-winners are American. Among the top 10 finishers in the seven tournaments – 70 overall – just 11 were non-Americans.

The last time there was such a streak to start the season was 2001 when U.S. players won the first eight events before Robert Allenby won the Northern Trust Open.

Can this be called an American resurgence? It’s difficult to tell because most of the top foreign players have not played in the PGA Tour this year. They’ve played in Middle East tournaments as part of the Race to Dubai tour. McIlroy flew in from Dubai Monday and will make his U.S. debut in Tucson. Same goes for Westwood, Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Graeme McDowell, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clark and George Coetzee, among others.

But world’s No. 1 Donald debuted last week at the Northern Trust and he finished tied for 56th. Other prominent foreign players are played various events in the U.S. this year without holding a trophy – or even a top 10 finish – such as K.J. Choi, Martin Laird, Aaron Baddeley, Carl Petterson, Ian Poulter, Camilo Villegas, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby, Retief Goosen, Rod Pampling, Adam Scott, Ryo Ishikawa, Geoff Ogilvy, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose.

They’ve taken their shots and have been denied by the local boys.

There are a couple significant reasons why the Americans seemed to be reclaimed their golfing superiority this season, with the best example Sunday in L.A. at the Northern Trust. The championship came down to a three-way playoff between 41-year-old Phil Mickelson and a couple of 20-somethings, Bill Haas and Keegan Bradley – all Americans. Haas won on the second playoff hole.

Mickelson and Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker Jim Furyk and a few other Tour veterans are representing the older crowd quite well once again. Then there’s the new generation that includes Haas, Bradley, Kyle Stanley, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Ryan Moore, Johnson Wagner, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Kevin Na, Gary Woodland and Spencer Levin. Many already have stared down Tiger so they can handle the Europeans.

Some of the U.S.-vs-foreign matches to look for in the WGC could be possible second-rounders, Woods against Darren Clark, Schwartzel against Woodland and McDowell against Mahan.

In the first round, Stanley, the story of the year thus far on the Tour, meets Choi. If Stanley wins, he could face Snedeker, who beat him in a playoff at the Farmer Insurance Open.

Layoff/Dropoff

There is so much money on the Tour that these guys can take off for weeks at a time and still end up with several million in winnings. Nice work if you can get it. They do need the time away to recharge – or recover their swing. Family is important. Personal lives are important.

Schedules are set up in advance, especially by the elite golfers, for strategic purposes, for rest, to set up for a ‘major’, for personal time, etc. But what I don’t understand is when a player is going well, why don’t they amend the schedule and ride that momentum.

Kyle Stanley, who lost in a heart-breaking finish at the Farmers Insurance Open, followed that with a surging victory the next week at the Waste Management in Phoenix. He then took a week off and came back last week to finish tied for 24th with only one sub-70 round. He had lost his mojo.

Mickelson, who won two weeks ago and lost in a playoff last week, is one of just two golfers in the world’s top 64 to skip the WGC-Accenture. It’s a major – small M – event. All the best in the world will be there. He’s on a roll. He could measure where he is this year against the best foreign players. But he’s chillin. He understands what’s best but it’s a lost opportunity and who knows if he’ll be better or worse from it as the Masters approaches.

Woods, who is still searching to reclaim his dominance, decide to add another tournament to his pre-Masters schedule, the Honda Classic on March 1-4. That’s a smart thing. He needs to play rather than do whatever he’s been doing with his bachelor time now.

Disappearing act

What has happened to Anthony Kim? At one time he was celebrated as a player who could command a certain status on the PGA Tour. He was among the young lions, like Kuchar, Mahan, Johnson and Haas.

But if you notice the results of Northern Trust. He finished in last place, missing the cut with rounds of 78 and 77. He signed his scorecard wrong, officially going down as a disqualification.

Kim has entered four tournaments this season and missed all four cuts. He has made no money. It’s a continuing sage. Last season, he had just two top 10 finishes in 26 starts.

For a guy who has won three times on Tour – but not since April 4, 2010 – if this pattern continues he’s on his way to losing his tour card.

Tseng old song

Yani Tseng may be the most dominant golfer in the world right now.

The 23-year-old Taiwanese golfer has won back-to-back LPGA Player of the Year awards. Last year she won seven tournaments, finishes in the top ten 14 times of the 22 events she entered, and was first on the Tour in birdies (358), rounds under par (54), rounds in the 60s (41), scoring average (69.66) and driving average (269.2).

Natalie Gulbis and soccer star Alex Morgan in SI

Last week she won her first tournament, the Honda LPGA Thailand event, by one stroke over Ai Miyazato. Over her final three rounds, Tseng shot 65, 65 and 66. It’s her fourth win in her last nine starts. It was her 13th career LPGA victory, her 33rdworldwide.

Tseng has now won nearly $8 million in prize money since turning pro in 2008. That’s already 14th place on the Tour’s all-time list, although the LPGA players were once woefully under rewarded. She also needs just six more points to qualify for the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame.

Having done all that, however, on the week she returns to the winner’s circle she may have been overshadowed by a fellow Tour member who finished in a tie for 61st place.

Natalie Gublis made headlines this week for a photo shoot taken several months ago. She was part of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition along soccer star Alex Morgan and other sports stars and high-level models. Only Gulbis’ suit was painted on. That can’t hurt her popularity or commercial appeal.

Making the turn

  • Bill Haas won his fourth event at the Northern Trust in his 195th start on Tour. His father, Jay, won his fourth tournament in his 180th start. His fours wins are the second most by players currently in their 20s, behind Dustin Johnson (5), Haas (4), Sean O’Hair (4), Camilo Villegas (3), Anthony Kim (3) and Hunter Mahan (3).
  • Mickelson had only two three-putts greens in his four rounds, both in the final round on the par-3 14th and on the par-4 15th hole.
  • Mickelson is now 21 of 31 in tournaments in which he held or shared the third-round lead.
  • A curious name rose high on the leaderboard Sunday at the first Nationwide stop in Colombia. Kirk Triplett finished in a tie for fourth. Triplett, who became the oldest player ever (49) to win a Nationwide event last August, turns 50 on March 29. This is his transition to the Champions Tour.
  • Aussie Geoff Ogilvy holds the best win percentage in the Accenture at 83.3 percent (20-4).
  • Twenty-four of the 64 players in the Accenture are under age 30.
  • Two-time Accenture champion Tiger Woods faces Gonzalo Fdez-Castano of Spain in the opening round.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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