It's 'English is the second language day'
The international field returns in big numbers to Augusta National
Friday was English as a Second Language Day at the Masters.
Not quite seven years after Tiger Woods made the locals forget how often players from the rest of the world left town wearing green jackets, there was no mistaking the message posted on the leaderboard at the end of the second round: The international crowd is back.
Four of the first five names atop it belonged, in order, to golfers born in South Africa, the Czech Republic, Spain and South Korea.
"The best players," said Alex Cejka, whose second straight round of 70 left him trailing leader Justin Rose by two strokes, "want to be where the best players are."
And during the first full week in April, they're always at Augusta National.
No tournament places a greater premium on precision, imaginative flair and the short game, and none is as likely to reward the kind of hunger that refuses to settle for second best. Guys like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson fit that bill of particulars. But they grew old and until Woods' emergence in 1997, precious few other Americans on the PGA Tour did.
Tiger has won three of the seven Masters since, and good buddy Mark O'Meara added a fourth, giving the home crowd a 4-3 edge. But go back to 1980, when Spaniard Seve Ballesteros became only the second non-American to win the Masters (and the first since three-time champion Gary Player), and it's 13-11 the other way.
And in the 10 years preceding Woods' breakthrough win, led by a cadre of Europeans known as the "Big Six," the out-of-towners posted an even more impressive 7-3 margin, including four straight from 1988-91.
Like a lot of people, Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal believed that run was the result of more creative players being developed on the other side of the Atlantic. Because the weather is rougher during the season over there and the courses not nearly as groomed, Olazabal said most international players were forced to develop better short games. But he doesn't think that explains this latest rush to the top of the board by the overseas contingent.
"In those years, we were really good around the greens and maybe the other players, especially the U.S. players, just catch up to us in that department on this golf course," said Olazabal, who is tied for second.
Huge international field
Numbers might help explain it, since this year's field of 93 includes the largest international contingent ever -- 43 golfers -- and ties the record for most countries represented -- 19, including the People's Republic of China for the first time.
But that doesn't cover the resurgence completely, either. More likely, it's the same thing that's been drawing people to these shores some 250 years before there was a decent golf course on this side of the pond -- a hunger to succeed.
Rose, the young Englishman who was born in South Africa, was supposed to be the next big thing in the game after finishing fourth in the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old. Instead, soon after launching his pro career, he missed 21 straight cuts and lost his father.
"Not to say that leading a major is easy," Rose said, "but I think I'm lucky in a lot of ways that, at age 23, I feel like I can draw on a couple of things that have happened to me going into the weekend."
Likewise for Cejka, a German citizen born in what used to be communist Czechoslovakia. At age 9, his father took him on a trip out of the country and at some point they swam across a river and into Germany to gain their freedom. Maybe that's why flying a golf ball across Rae's Creek doesn't seem so daunting.
"I think they would shoot us if they catch us, but I don't know" Cejka recalled. "It was Communism. Nobody was allowed to get out."
Late start for Choi
No such dangers prevented K.J. Choi from seeking his fame and fortune. But as the son of a rice farmer in South Korea, he wasn't exposed to the game until he was 16 or the kind of topflight teaching professionals available at courses all over the United States. But Choi bought a Nicklaus instructional book, strung together hour after hour of practice, traveled to a land where he didn't know the language, customs or food, and somehow won two PGA Tour events.
Already the first South Korean to do so, Choi is tied with Phil Mickelson for fourth place heading into the weekend. His next target is to become the first of his countrymen ever to win a major.
"I can't even imagine what the reaction of the Korean people will be, but it will be great," he said through an interpreter. "Some of them, perhaps, will even skip a meal."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.