POSE the question to just about any leading golfer and he will invariably come away with just about the same response. Ask them to identify “the best” of the world’s various tours and the answer is nearly always immediate – and largely unthinking: “the PGA Tour”.
Which is both understandable and predictable. The vast majority of these guys are professionals before anything else, so the circuit offering the biggest prize funds is always going to be the most popular.
Let’s move the goalposts, though. Rampant commercialism/materialism in the shape of huge cheques, top-end courtesy cars, five-star player lounges, ever-more exotic gifts (one can only imagine that every member of every PGA Tour player’s family now owns an iPad/phone/laptop and just about every other 21st century toy and trinket), free flights, complimentary hotel rooms and all the rest can surely never be the sole measure of quality in the game we Scots sent around the globe. Even if professionals now take for granted their “right” to be pampered within an inch of their cosseted lives (woe betide any tournament that fails to meet those lofty expectations) there has to be more to competitive golf than a seemingly never-ending accumulation of cash and “stuff”.
It has long been acknowledged, for example, that the European circuit is “friendlier” than its American counterpart. In the Old World, the social side of the tour is far more welcoming than it is in the New. In Europe, players tend to stay in the same hotels. So finding someone to have dinner with is rarely a problem. In America, the players are typically scattered all over the place, so social interaction away from the course can be more difficult to arrange. Certainly, room service is a lot more popular over there.
“The players get on better in Europe, too,” says one European Tour player who asked not to be identified. “Things are just a lot friendlier. I understand why guys want to play in the States, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. It can get a bit lonely.”
There are other factors at play here too. While PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s multi-million dollar extravaganza is undoubtedly the most direct avenue to financial success, is it really superior to, say, the European or Australasian Tours when it comes to variety of course set-ups and in turn the development of multi-dimensional, versatile and – some might say – “proper” golfers?
A quick look at recent Ryder Cup results suggests that it is not. And were three of the four major championships to be held outside, rather than inside, the US it can be argued that the steady encroachment of widespread American-based mediocrity would be even more apparent. Three away games instead of three at home would be an interesting test of American strength – or otherwise – in the game’s biggest events.
“It is harder to get into both the majors and the European Ryder Cup team when you play most of your golf in Europe,” maintains another leading player, who also asked not to be identified. “The system is stacked in favour of those who play for the most money and the most world ranking points.
“Conversely, it does seem to me that it is easier to make the American team than the European side. I look at their recent sides and wonder how some of those guys get in. They do so little to make it, whereas in Europe you almost have to have the year of your life to qualify. It must be said, though, that European lads based in the States can make our team without playing much better than mediocre.
“Still, playing for so much money on the PGA Tour is a double-edged blade. I have to think the inclination would be to coast after a while. Every year I marvel at their money-list and wonder where so-and-so has won his $2.3m or whatever. If you earn $1m on the European tour you have played unbelievably well. But to do the same over there you don’t. That sums it up really.”
Assuming at least some truth in all of the above, what exactly is wrong with the golf being played across the pond? Is it just that there is too much money? Are most or at least many players really satisfied when they reach “pretty good” rather than “great”? Is the pursuit of excellence finishing some way short of the finishing line?
“Playing in different countries on courses that are often very different and in weather that varies hugely does make us all a bit more worldly than a guy who never plays outside the US,” contends the first of our anonymous professionals. “But it is a big country, so they do get a bit of variety over there too. And no, I would never argue that you have to play less than really, really well to win in either Europe or America. Victories in smaller European events are easier to come by than in the smaller PGA Tour events, just because the fields are that bit deeper.
“It is also true that too many of the PGA Tour courses are set up in very similar ways. The fairways do tend to be just about the same width week to week. The rough is nearly always the same length and thickness. The sand in the bunkers is often the same depth and consistency. And the greens are pretty much the same speed all the time. So you inevitably become very proficient in a pretty narrow form of golf. But outside that comfort zone it can be difficult to adjust.”
Sadly, this trend towards uniformity is spreading, particularly in the area of rough. Just last week the World Golf Championship in Shanghai was played on a course that was almost smothered in long grass, the first option for officials intent on “defending” courses against the silly distances so many leading professionals now hit the ball with their frying-pan metal drivers. Many of the pin positions were just as depressing. With so many holes cut on slopes and mounds, the players were too often forced to putt defensively, an aspect of the game that soon becomes close to unwatchable.
All of which, of course, only adds to the increasingly one-dimensional nature of the game at the highest level.
Yes, the likes of Bubba Watson will pop up now and then and win, but more and more the vast majority of the field is reduced to playing almost every hole in almost exactly the same way. Yawn.
The solution is obvious. Knock 40 yards or so off the ball – and make it spin more so that shots can be shaped more – and tour courses can then be set up in the ways originally intended by the designer. Not until that happens will variety truly return to the professional game on both sides of the Atlantic. Right now, only events played in Australia and the occasional foray on to a true links provide anything other than an unappetising diet of tedium. Played almost exclusively through the air – instead of encouraging a more interesting and stimulating combination of flight, bounce and roll – golf is not that much fun either to watch or play. Discuss.