The world has caught up: Fewer and fewer Americans making WGC fields

MARANA, Ariz. — The marketing slogan for the World Golf Championship tournaments is, "The world is watching." But at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club this week, the slogan may as well be, "The world has caught up," or, "What's wrong with American golf?"

For the first time all 64 of the top 64 players in the World Ranking will play matches Wednesday, but more interesting is the fact that only 17 of those are Americans. That's the fewest Americans in the field since the event began in 1999. (The first round was good to the Americans, however, who went 12-3 in matches against players from other countries.)

"There's been talk — we talk about that," said Stewart Cink, the runner-up to Tiger Woods in last year's all-American Accenture final. "The number of Americans has gone down every year they've had the tournament. There are a lot of good players around the world, and a lot of World Ranking points going that direction."

The international makeup of this year's field is more jarring because of the large number of players here who remain mostly, if not completely, anonymous in America.

The list is headed by Alvaro Quiros (pronounced Keeros) of Spain, a long-hitting 26-year-old who won the European Tour's Qatar Masters earlier this year and has climbed to 25th in the World Ranking. But the new, unfamiliar names keep coming.

There's Lin Wen-Tang of Taiwan, who has won twice, finished second on the Asian Tour Order of Merit in 2008, and is 54th in the world. (Alas, he made seven bogeys and was annihilated, 7 and 5, by American Anthony Kim on Wednesday.) There's Prayed Marksaeng of Thailand, the 52nd-ranked player in the world; Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa (47th); and Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark (61st).

That's where things get monumentally confusing. Suffice it to say you deserve a medal, or a restraining order, if you can positively I.D. Anders Hansen (49th), Soren Hansen (53rd) or Peter Hanson (60th). (Cheat sheet: Hanson is the Swede, one of three in the field. The other two are Danes. There will be a quiz later.)

One popular sentiment this week is that the paucity of Americans in the field is the result of a flaw in the World Ranking.

"I'd take D.J. Trahan or Nick Watney (neither of whom qualified for the Accenture) over Alvaro Quiros any day of the week," one American caddie told me.

Certainly the World Ranking has its flaws. But it doesn't adequately explain a trend that, while obscured by the dominance of American Tiger Woods, has become impossible to refute. In the first year of the Accenture, 1999, there were 36 Americans in the field. The numbers since then: 34, 33, 36, 29, 30, 27, 24, 23, 20, and, this year, 17.

It was once plausible to argue that while the Scots invented golf, the Americans owned it. That's no longer the case. The best young players today carry passports from Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy, 17th in the World Ranking), Japan (Ryo Ishikawa, 68th) and New Zealand (Danny Lee, whose W at the Johnnie Walker Classic last weekend vaulted him 403 spots to 159th in the Ranking).

The presence of Woods will continue to keep the stars and stripes at the top of the leader board, and Tim Finchem, the most powerful commissioner in golf, has assured that the megabucks WGC events, which also include the CA Championship (Doral Resort in Miami), and Bridgestone Invitational (Firestone in Akron, Ohio) are staged on U.S. soil.

All of that, however, is cold comfort. Seventeen Americans. The world is no longer just watching. The world is playing.

"Hogan gave an interview just before he died, and said these kids here [in America] don't have any bad days, so they don't know what to do when they hit adversity," Houston-based instructor Charlie Epps said as his student, Angel Cabrera of Argentina, practiced his putting. "These Europeans and Australians and South Africans want what we've got, and they're gonna get it."