By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One look at the leaderboard reveals what the homers will be loath to acknowledge: North America has as many golfers with a real chance to win the Masters as Antarctica -- which is to say none.
Each of the five other continents has at least one representative in the top seven. Europe and Australia have two.
“America is big,” South African Charl Schwartzel said, stating the obvious, “but the world is bigger.”
Maybe the first sign that the hosts were going to struggle bubbled up when Canadian and former champion Mike Weir missed the cut. And so by sundown Saturday at Augusta National, what remained of the continent’s hopes rested on the shoulders of two guys named Bo and Bubba -- Van Pelt and Watson, respectively -- a still out-of-sorts Tiger Woods and 51-year-old Fred Couples.
Van Pelt is 6 under, but still six strokes back of leader Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. Four strokes back, but next on the leaderboard is Argentine Angel Cabrera, followed by Schwartzel, South Korean K.J. Choi, Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott and Englishman Luke Donald.
Watson, Woods and Couples are 5 under, Matt Kuchar and Ryan Palmer are 4 under, and it’s another two strokes back to defending champion Phil Mickelson.
If none of them manages to pull off an upset -- and the largest comeback in Masters history was from eight shots behind, by Jackie Burke in 1956 -- it would mark the first time in golf history that the United States has failed to hold at least one of the four major titles or the Ryder Cup.
“I think players are really watching how the other top players are playing,” said Choi, who, like many of the overseas players, lives most of the year in the United States -- in his case, Houston.
“And the more chances that they have to play abroad, that definitely gives them the experience. Me, personally, I try to practice a lot. I study other players and I do my homework. So I think,” he added, “that’s what’s contributing to the development of the international players.”
Choi came to the game late, but more than a few of the international 20-somethings who have turned this year’s tournament into a coming-out party have talked about how Woods’ dominating win in 1997 was among their first vivid memories of the game and a source of inspiration.
That singular win cast much the same blanket spell over the rest of the world that USA Basketball’s “Dream Team” weaved at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. After those Olympics, all of a sudden kids in Lithuania, China and Argentina began dribbling a basketball on their way to the store with one hand and then back using the other -- much the same way their counterparts in New York City and all over Indiana had been doing for decades. It changed the NBA forever.
And when Woods followed it up by taking his act to the farther-flung corners of the world, it changed golf as well. Courses popped up and equipment became accessible in places where they were as scarce as McDonald’s. Yet it was the amplification of the echo that Jack Nicklaus sent out before TV and computers reached into every remote corner of the world.
More than once, in trying to explain the success of Europeans at the Masters two decades ago, three-time champion Nick Faldo of England talked about how as a kid, he planned his days around a delayed broadcast of one of Nicklaus’ wins on the telly. After he won, former champion Vijay Singh of Fiji recalled how his father, who worked at the lone airstrip on the island, bargained with pilots for a copy of one of Nicklaus’ instructional videos, and how they were among the most prized possessions of his childhood.
The reasons for the emergence of the internationals are many. But as Schwartzel pointed out, the sheer number of people playing the game beyond these shores predicted that days like this -- and many more -- were on the way.
The British owned the game during the 19th century and Americans most of the last one. But with golf finally locking up a spot on the Olympic menu for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, it virtually guarantees that China, India and any of several other of this century’s emerging powers will dominate it.
Get used to it.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org