It was only fitting that on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player becoming the first non-American player to win the Masters, he watched another South African, Charl Schwartzel, become the first champion at Augusta National to finish with four straight birdies.
Player wasted no time sending his congratulations -- on Twitter, of course, in a sign of the times. In the hours after Schwartzel won against a leaderboard that featured players from every continent on which golf is played, the 26-year-old champion sent Player a reply.
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The 2011 Masters will go down in history as providing one of the most exciting final rounds in major championship history.
“Proud to follow your tradition!”
Player was an anomaly at the time he won, the first global player in a game that is more international than ever before. Schwartzel’s victory Sunday at the Masters was only the latest example of worldwide parity in golf.
For the first time since 1994 -- and only the second since the Masters began in 1934 -- non-American players hold the four major championships. Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won the U.S. Open last summer at Pebble Beach, followed by Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa at the British Open and Martin Kaymer of Germany at the PGA Championship.
“The world is big,” Schwartzel said after the third round. “America is big, but the world is bigger. There’s more people. It might change again. There’s just a bunch of good players out there from the European Tour and even Asia.”
Schwartzel is not a late bloomer in the game.
His father has a chicken farm in Vereeniging, near Pretoria, and he played golf three times a week. Schwartzel was a toddler when his father and Ernie Els played together in a team event they won at a local club in South Africa. He would caddie for his father in Wednesday and Saturday games, and they played together on Friday.
“And that’s how it started,” Schwartzel said.
As a teenager, he took part in Els’ junior program that traveled around the country to compete. Another kid from the other side of the country, Oosthuizen, also was part of that program. Oosthuizen hoisting a claret jug last summer at St. Andrews did not go unnoticed.
“That was a huge inspiration,” Schwartzel said. “We grew up together from a young age. We played every single team event, and we represented South Africa for so long. We basically are the best of mates. So we know where our level of golf is, and just to see him do it made me realize that it’s possible.”
Schwartzel winning allowed for 50-year bookends of South Africans in a Green Jacket. This final round, however, also was reminiscent of 25 years ago, when Jack Nicklaus stormed through a leaderboard that featured Tom Kite, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros to win a sixth green jacket at age 46.
That will live in Masters lore because it was Nicklaus. This one was compelling because of the sheer number of players who had a chance. The significance of 1986 -- in terms of global golf -- goes beyond the scores that week.
It was in 1986 when the Official World Golf Ranking was introduced, with Europeans at Nos. 1-2-3 in the world. The Masters, along with the other two American-based majors, had a distinctive Stars & Stripes feel to it.
There were only 13 players outside North America in the 88-man field at Augusta in 1986. This year, there were 55 players from outside North American in the 99-man field.
“Maybe in the past, there are only 10, 15, 20 guys who could win the tournament,” Kaymer said earlier in the week. “These days, how many is in the field, 100? And probably 60, 70 guys have a chance to win. I don’t think it has something to do with where you’re coming from -- America or Asia or Europe.”
Among the 34 players who broke par at the Masters was 19-year-old Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who qualified by winning the Asian Amateur Championship. The Augusta National members were thrilled, not only because they are working with the Royal & Ancient to develop the Asian Amateur, but because they figured it would be another five years before the amateur winner could factor at the Masters.
Y.E. Yang of South Korea was the first Asian male to win a major two years ago in the PGA Championship.
Australia has had a golf tradition for more than a century, although it remains without a Green Jacket. It only stands out because of all the heartache Greg Norman suffered at Augusta over the years.
Adam Scott had a one-shot lead with two holes to play, and Jason Day birdied his last two holes. They tied for second, while Geoff Ogilvy and his five straight birdies on the back nine put him in a tie for fourth.
Norman spoke to Day and Scott by phone after they signed their cards.
“He’s very proud of what we did out there and how we played,” Day said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a drought for too long. I think Australian golf is right where it needs to be, and there’s a lot of young, good Australian golfers coming up right now through the ranks. One of us is going to win that green jacket one day.”
When that day comes, the Australians will have more than Woods or any other American to beat. South Africans have won two of the last three majors. Europeans have won two of the last four.
“It just shows how strong golf is worldwide,” Day said. “It used to be pretty strong on the American circuit. Just shows how tough it is getting and how tough it is to get onto these tours.”