By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- The flags said it all. Standing on the driving range at Atlanta Athletic Club in the midday heat on Monday, South Africa’s Trevor Immelman hit one 8-iron shot after another at the Australian flag near the left trees, while 15 feet to Immelman’s left Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas hit wedges at the German flag. A few more feet away, Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn took aim with a driver at the national banner of France, and, farther down, England’s Justin Rose had a go with a mid-iron at the flapping red flag of China.
If there were ever a question about golf’s growing globalization, this week’s field at the PGA Championship should put the issue to rest. Not only are 22 countries represented, the foreign contingent would have to be considered favorites, especially since the last six major championships have been won by three Northern Irishmen, two South Africans and a German.
The United States still has the most players in the field, by far, but by the time those who make the cut this week tee off on Saturday morning, it will have been 500 days since an American won a major. That was Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters. And in the last dozen years, major champions have come from South Africa, Argentina, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Spain, Germany, Canada and Fiji.
This week’s field includes five major champions from South Africa and three from Northern Ireland, any one of whom could add another title on Sunday. There is also a two-time major champion from Spain, and the hottest player in the game: Australian Adam Scott. China even has a player in this PGA Championship. Wenchong Liang will tee off at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday with Edoardo Molinari from Italy and Jason Dufner from Auburn, Ala.
To peek inside the U.N. nature of golf these days, look no farther than the final leaderboard at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The top 15 players were, in order: Scott (Australia), Rickie Fowler (USA), Luke Donald (England), Jason Day (Australia), Ryo Ishikawa (Japan), Kyung-tae Kim (South Korea), Zach Johnson (USA), Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland), Lee Westwood (England), David Toms (USA), Aaron Baddeley (Australia) Fredrik Jacobson (Sweden), Martin Laird (Scotland), Steve Stricker (USA) and Francesco Molinari (Italy).
If that’s not convincing enough, look at the World Golf Rankings. The top four players in the game going into this event are English (Donald and Westwood), German (Kaymer) and Northern Irish (McIlroy). The top-ranked American in the world is Steve Sticker at No.5, but Stricker has no major wins and hasn’t made an appearance in the final pairing of a major since the 1998 PGA Championship.
“There is no doubt the best players in the world are from outside the U.S. right now,” said long-time sports agent Rocky Hambric. “I’m not even looking at the States right now for the future of the game. The future is here and it’s European, Asian, African and Australian.”
Even South America is making noises. In addition to Vegas, a winner earlier in the year and a crowd favorite and two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, Andres Romero from Argentina and Camilo Villegas from Columbia are here.
A total of 13 foreign-born players have won the PGA Championship, including the last three in a row (Kaymer, Y.E. Yang and Padraig Harrington). No doubt more Americans have a chance to win this week by virtue of the number of U.S. players teeing off. But history is not on America’s side. No matter where your heart and loyalties like, it’s a pretty good bet that the leaderboard on Sunday will be filled with flags other than the Stars and Stripes.