RYE, NEW YORK
VIJAY SINGH, a Fijian Indian who learned to play golf largely by reading magazines, won the Buick Classic at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., last week. He was the third foreigner in four weeks to win on the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) Tour.
"Every professional dreams of playing and winning in America," says Singh, who has earned $377,081 and made the cut in all seven of his 1993 PGA Tour appearances. "It's the best tour in the world." Look for more foreign-born golfers among the leaders at the United States Open, the final rounds of which are this weekend.
Singh turned pro at 19 and played on tours in Australia, Africa, and Europe, all the while dreaming of taking his game to the PGA Tour. His journey to the zenith of American professional golf is one that golfers worldwide are completing. American leader boards are routinely dotted with foreigners like Australian Greg Norman (winner of 11 PGA Tour titles and more than 60 worldwide), South African Nick Price (the defending PGA champion, with $4.3 million in PGA Tour career earnings), and Trish Johnson of W ales. Johnson has two Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour victories this year and ranks second on the money list.
Indeed, more than 20 PGA Tour and some 30 LPGA Tour members grew up outside the US. Seven foreigners have won PGA Tour tournaments in 1993, and five have won on the LPGA tour. Foreigners account for three of the top six PGA Tour money winners and three of the top eight on the LPGA Tour this year.
International players are abundant in US amateur ranks, too, especially in college. Last month, Charlotta Sorenstam, a freshman from Sweden playing for the University of Texas, won the women's National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.
"We want the top players in the world participating here," says Chuck Adams, a PGA Tour official. "An international representation is the sort of thing the PGA Tour is working for."
Only in the last few years have foreigners had widespread success in the United States. In 1982, for example, Americans won every PGA Tour tournament; in 1987, only three foreigners won on the PGA Tour.
The success of international players here is largely due to golf's global popularity boom. America's extensive junior, collegiate, amateur, and professional programs have long been the world's best. But now many other countries have high-quality programs and facilities designed to develop world-class skills. Professional tours have grown in Europe, Asia, South Africa, and Australia. Sweden and France now have special programs aimed at producing world golf champions.
As good as other countries' systems are, though, the ultimate goal for most foreign players is the US. "The only reason players don't play the US," says Fulton Allem, a South African who early this month won the PGA Tour's Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio, "is because of the competitive difficulty of getting on the PGA Tour and how much it costs to come here."
Why do so many players come to America? For starters, there's cash - lots of cash. Total prize money on the 1993 PGA Tour is close to $55 million, and corporate endorsement opportunities are plentiful. The total purse on the world's next-biggest tour, the European PGA Tour, is some $35 million, and the figure drops substantially on the Australian and African tours.
High-quality competition and courses are major attractions here. "You want to prove yourself where the best players are," says New Zealand native Grant Waite, who lives in Salt Lake City and won the Kemper Open in Potomac, Md., last month. "Overseas, you just don't have the depth in the fields you get here. Just making the cut is a challenge. And the courses are without a doubt the best in the world."
Many enjoy the PGA Tour's creature comforts and simple logistics. Australian Craig Parry turned pro in 1985 and played on five continents before settling last year on the PGA Tour. Now married and a father, Parry lives in Orlando, Fla.
"I got sick and tired of using my passport every week," says Parry, winner of nine events worldwide and $241,901 last year on the PGA Tour. "It's nice to speak the same language every week and not have to always be changing money. Plus the PGA Tour is really family oriented. They've even got nursery facilities."
Japanese and European players are notably absent from the international influx here. Some Europeans have been very successful in America - Bernhard Langer of Germany, Nick Faldo of England, and Spain's Seve Ballesteros have each won two Masters - but they, as most Europeans, tend to play in the US only around major championships.
Scheduling conflicts, large purses at home, and language barriers have kept most Japanese players on the Japan PGA Tour. But even they are beginning to strive for the pride that comes with winning in America. "If I were to win once over here," says Joe Ozaki, who has won 14 Japan PGA Tour events and played seven times in the US this year, "it would be like winning 100 tournaments in Japan."