We Are the World
By Greg Midland, USGA
Just like the country for which it is named, the U.S. Open is a melting pot.
This year’s record-shattering 9,860 U.S. Open entries encompass 73 countries, and it is no longer a surprise to see a foreign player holding the trophy late on Sunday. In fact, seven of the past 11 champions are foreign-born.
However, the international flavor seen at the U.S. Open in recent decades was not always the norm.
While the first 16 U.S. Opens (1895-1910) were won by English and Scottish professionals – no surprise, given the game’s origins – Americans soon began a dynasty. From 1928 through 1993, a span of 62 championships, there were only three non-American winners – South African Gary Player in 1965, Englishman Tony Jacklin in 1970, and Australian David Graham in 1981, at Merion.
The U.S. Open was not an anomaly, as the Masters and PGA Championship were also dominated by Americans in the midcentury decades, a timeframe that coincided with golf’s rapid postwar rise in the United States. The game enjoyed unprecedented popularity thanks to Arnold Palmer, a golf-loving president in Dwight Eisenhower, and most important of all, the advent of the televised sports age that brought the game into living rooms across the country.
Graham’s victory at Merion came in the early stages of the game’s global expansion, and helped move it along. In his home country, Graham’s win had a major impact on Greg Norman, then 26 years old and little known outside Australia, who went on to become the world’s top player for much of the late 1980s and 1990s.
It also made an impression on two adolescent future stars, 10-year-old Stuart Appleby and 9-year-old Robert Allenby, and the scores of talented Australian golfers who would follow.
In fact, we can now look upon Graham’s victory at Merion as being perhaps the last time that an international champion registered surprise. Shortly after, players such as Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo would win multiple major championships. Though none of them would capture a U.S. Open (Norman and Faldo both lost 18-hole playoffs), they became fixtures of competitive golf at the highest level.
In 1994, the rise of international success became a tidal wave. For the first time, all four modern major championships were won in the same year by foreign-born players. The victory by Ernie Els in that year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont had a ripple effect similar to Graham’s, as future stars from around the world were captivated by the Big Easy’s power and touch.
As reported in Lewine Mair’s chapter on the rise of international players in the new USGA book Great Moments of the U.S. Open, one of them was 2010 champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
“I was only 14 at the time, but I was a big Ernie Els fan when he won at Oakmont,” McDowell recalls. “I wanted the same Lynx clubs as he was using and the same Ashworth shirt that he was wearing.”
Els won his second U.S. Open in 1997 at Congressional, and in his wake came fellow countryman Retief Goosen, who won in 2001 at Southern Hills and 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.
Recognizing the growing global appeal of the U.S. Open, in 2005 the USGA instituted international sectional qualifying in Japan and England. It was a success right from the beginning.
“The first year, our U.S. Open champion [New Zealander Michael Campbell] emerged from the qualifier at Walton Heath in England,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of Rules & Amateur Status, who was the official in charge at that qualifier. “He told me when he won at Pinehurst that if he had to come to America for qualifying, he likely wouldn’t have done it.”
Hall explained that Campbell’s conundrum was the exact rationale behind international qualifying.
“The group of players who meet our local exemption criteria would have had to take two weeks away from their home tours to come to the U.S. to prepare for Sectional Qualifying,” said Hall. “That’s a big commitment and we wanted to accommodate them. International qualifying is a more direct, more convenient way for those players.”
It should also be noted that The R&A offers a similar qualifying option for its marquee championship, holding an International Final Qualifying event for the British Open in the U.S. each May. This year’s was held on May 20 in Plano, Texas, giving U.S.-based Tour players an opportunity to attempt to qualify for the British Open between tour stops.
The last nine U.S. Opens have been won by players from six countries: South Africa (Goosen, 2004); New Zealand (Campbell, 2005); Australia (Geoff Ogilvy, 2006); Argentina (Angel Cabrera, 2007); United States (Tiger Woods in 2008, Lucas Glover in 2009, and Webb Simpson in 2012); and Northern Ireland (McDowell in 2010 and Rory McIlroy in 2011).
The strength of the international game has also been reflected in other USGA championships, particularly the U.S. Amateur. Following a 32-year victory drought for non-Americans, Nick Flanagan of Australia won in 2003 at Oakmont, and Edoardo Molinary of Italy won at Merion in 2005. Scotsman Richie Ramsay triumphed in 2006, and back-to-back Korean winners – Danny Lee in 2008 and Byeong-Hun An in 2009 – further solidified the trend.
In 2011, the USGA began offering U.S. Amateur exemptions to the top 50 ranked players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), enabling a number of players who would not have otherwise traveled to the U.S. for qualifying a chance to compete in the championship.
With golf returning to the Olympics in 2016, the game’s global footprint continues to expand. As participation rates in North America and well-established golf nations in Europe just start to recover from the global recession, this upsurge of international participation is bolstering the game’s overall health.
It also stands to reason that the list of countries boasting U.S. Open champions will continue to expand.
“It’s our national championship, but it’s an international event,” says the USGA’s Hall.
As fans arrive at Merion for the 113th U.S. Open, the plethora of flags flying above the scoreboard will reflect this international presence.
Greg Midland is the director of editorial and multimedia content for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.