<
>

The changing of the golf guard

The golf war is finished. We -- the USA -- lost.

We're no longer masters of our golf domain. We're No. 1? We're not even No. 3. Four of the top five, 16 of the top 25 and 32 of the top 50 players in the world rankings are non-Americans.

"The rest of the world of golfers has grown up," said player agent Chubby Chandler, who represents an A-list of international players.

If nothing else, we could always depend on Tiger Woods. He was the surest thing since red shirts on Sundays. But he hasn't won a PGA Tour event since September 2009, hasn't won a major since June 2008 and his five-year reign atop the world rankings ended in October.

And guess what? That's OK. It's more than OK. It's actually pretty cool.

"There needed to be life after Tiger -- and I'm not saying that Tiger's finished," said Chandler, whose clients include new world No. 1 Lee Westwood, No. 7 Rory McIlory, No. 11 Charl Schwartzel, No. 15 Ernie Els and No. 31 Louis Oosthuizen. "But there needs to be a continuation of what goes on in golf. And if that's a different continuation, then good."

A South African (Schwartzel) just won the Masters.

The defending U.S. Open champion (Graeme McDowell) is a Northern Irishman.

The defending British Open champion (Oosthuizen) is another South African.

The defending PGA champion (Martin Kaymer) is a German.

That means for only the second time since World War II, Americans have taken an O-fer in the majors. And if you count the supposed fifth major -- next month's Players Championship -- a non-American (South African Tim Clark) is the defending champion there, too.

Three of the last four Masters winners are non-Americans. Five of the last seven U.S. Open winners are non-Americans. Three of the last four Open Championship winners are non-Americans. The last three PGA Championship winners are non-Americans. Four of the last five Players winners are non-Americans.

By the way, did I mention that Europeans have kidnapped the Ryder Cup? They've won four of the last five, six of the last eight. If the Cup spends any more time overseas, it's going to develop the Stockholm Syndrome.

"What's happened is that you now have the best young kids from all over the world come to play here," Chandler said. "It's not a European or anything domination. It's just the way that you've got a lot of players around the world that are as good as some Americans. Whereas you used to have a lot of Americans who were very good and kept all the other players off the [PGA] tour, it's not like that anymore."

And then Chandler chided those (hello) who look at a leaderboard and count the number of U.S. players on it.

"You should be focusing on how good the game is right now," Chandler said. "You should forget about this domination. You've got 10 great kids out there."

He's right. The rest of the world was going to catch us one of these days. After all, the world had numbers and time on its side. It drafted us for years and then did a NASCAR bump and run. We lost traction and now we're sucking fumes.

Again, this isn't a bad thing for golf. It's just a bad thing for our USA golf egos.

"I think these are all global players now," said George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour. "They are just players."

This is a polite way of saying that the world is sitting on our couch, feet up on the ottoman, drinking our beer, petting our dogs and changing the TV remote from Knicks-Celtics to a Manchester United-Newcastle game.

Something had to give. Tiger is 35. He broke his life into a thousand pieces and he's trying to weld it back together -- and he will. But his window of majors opportunity has smaller panes of glass than it used to.

Same goes for Phil Mickelson. He turns 41 in mid-June.

Mickelson is ranked No. 4. Tiger is No. 6. Fellow American Steve Stricker is No. 9, but he's also 44 years old. Matt Kuchar, ranked 10th in the world, turns 33 in two months. They're not out of their prime, but they're not exactly in the sweet spot of it anymore.

USA reinforcements are on their way. Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim and Gary Woodland have lots of potential, but zero majors among the seven of them.

Meanwhile, Kaymer and Oosthuizen already have majors and is there anybody who doesn't think Westwood, Luke Donald, McIlroy, Justin Rose, Paul Casey or Ryo Ishikawa isn't going to eventually win one of the Big Four?

Oh, and one other guy: Italian Matteo Manassero, who recently outkicked McIlroy in the final round to win the Maybank Malaysian Open.

"You look how good Manassero is," O'Grady said. "He's only 18, by the way. He's certainly got a major championship within him somewhere."

Tiger or no Tiger, this really has the possibility of becoming golf's next golden age. Fifty years after South Africa's Gary Player won the Masters (and was referred to as "a foreigner"), the game is borderless. Country flags no longer matter. Or they shouldn't.

"You've got an absolutely brand new era here," Chandler said.

An era of new names, not nations. It took a while, but it was worth the wait. Really.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY ยป