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The Foreign Invasion and the Bruised U.S. Image

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Vijay Singh
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Foreign golfers like Vijay Singh are scooping up American dollars just as fast as the golf tours can put the big purses on the line. (.)

"Those foreigners must think that lady there in the New York harbor is holding the flag for the putter not the Torch of Liberty," the fellow on the next stool was saying. "They're coming over in droves."

And, he might have added, they're scooping up American dollars just as fast as the golf tours can put the big purses on the line. Fellows like Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Jesper Parnevik, Shigeki Maruyama, Jose Maria Olezabal, Nick Price, Thomas Bjorn, Jean Van de Velde and the young upstart, Sergio Garcia, have been beating a steady path to the PGA pay windows. But even more spectacular is the assault on the LPGA's coffers this year by the visiting ladies. In the year's first 23 events through the U.S. Open, the invaders have won the top prize in 17 tournaments.

If that pace continues, Yankee damsels are likely to pick up that welcome mat and hide it. We're talking about big bucks here! Undoubtedly, the hungry visitors feel that inasmuch as this is the LPGA's ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, they're only too happy to come to the party. And who says it's impolite to snatch your hostess' purse while the glasses are clinking! Not unlike Tiger Woods' lop-sided domination of the PGA circuit, Karrie Webb of Australia, and Sweden's Annika Sorenstam have led the LPGA assault. Together they've racked up 11 wins - more than 60 percent of the total - and have taken, jointly, $2.5 million to the bank in little more than half a season.

Also joining the rampage have been two-time winner Laura Davies of England, Korea's Grace Park, Janice Moody of Scotland, Sophie Gustafson of Sweden, and Sorenstam's kid sister, Charlotta. And that adds up to another hit on the LPGA pack of $1.8 million.

Webb, whose steady shot-making skills remind many of Mickey Wright, has the U.S. title as one of her five triumphs this year. It was an easy effort for the Down Under 25-year-old, again, not unlike Tiger's breeze to the British Open and his massacre at Pebble Beach for the U.S. crown. She not only took home the biggest prize ever awarded in the championship - $500,000, but she also picked up a bonus from the folks at Nabisco for winning another major to go with her Nabisco Championship. A $750,000 payday is really a moonshot on the LPGA circuit.

Webb put still one more notation in the record book that surely caught the attention of her Yankee playmates. By winning the Open, she qualified for entry into the World Golf Hall of Fame - the first non-American on the LPGA Tour to reach that goal. She must wait until the year 2005, when she will complete her tenth year on the tour, to be formally installed.

The departure of such a sizable stack of dollars to foreign shores, combined with the additional millions won on the PGA Tour, probably won't have a telling effect on the trade balance. But it could stimulate some thinking - and moaning - among the American pros, men and women.

Since the post-World War II boom set in, the game has been dominated by Americans - the championships, the Cups matches, the prize money lists and the big dollars for endorsements. But in the past decade or two, players from around the world have made meaningful inroads into the American rule. And it is unlikely that we'll ever regain such a lofty perch - unless Tiger Woods decides he's never going to lose again.

The events that had been won consistently by the Americans over a long stretch are no longer a lock. And they haven't been for some time. The overseas players who qualify for invitations to the Masters have been coming here and fitting themselves into Green Jackets with startling regularity. Fellows like Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Olazabal, and, more recently, Fiji's Singh have broken up what was once a solid U.S. reign at Augusta.

There have been some inroads in the other majors, too, but none quite as astonishing as what has been going on at Augusta. Quite simply, the rest of the world has caught up to us. Improvements in equipment, now available everywhere, instruction that's easily accessible and less complex. More courses everywhere. Convenient, less costly travel to and from events. And the international competitive fire that has been built up by the media and funded by almost unlimited corporate support.

But for all the weakening and distortion of America's once-golden golf image, it's not likely that our fellows will do anything to disrupt the heavy volume of overseas traffic to the get-rich-quick U.S. events. The Bobby Locke story is still an embarrassment to the PGA.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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