John Huggan: Europe grass looks greener for young Americans

Peter Uihlein is one of many young Americans choosing Europe ahead of tournaments in some of their home country's less glamorous locations. Picture: Getty
Peter Uihlein is one of many young Americans choosing Europe ahead of tournaments in some of their home country's less glamorous locations. Picture: Getty
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IT’S not quite the second coming of the Great Depression – not yet anyway – but for a worryingly lengthy period of time, a jarringly large number of the headlines emanating from the normally genteel confines of the European Tour have carried messages some way south of cheery.

What with the still-parlous state of the economy, the seemingly inexorable disappearance of even long-standing tournaments and an equally significant exodus of star names attracted by the opulence and riches of golf American-style, the Wentworth-based organisation has taken a succession of powerful punches to the solar plexus. There has even been credible talk – not denied with any great degree of believability – of the big, bad PGA Tour swallowing its Old World counterpart whole.

Still, just when it seems like things can’t get too much more disturbing, along comes a wee hint of autumn sunshine, courtesy of, ironically enough, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. In what could turn out to be an error of monumental proportions, the diminutive supremo has overseen the demise of his tour’s end-of-season 108-hole qualifying school. In its place, promotion to the 2014 version of golf’s biggest league (which started this week) was achieved through a combination of consistently stellar play on the second division Web.Com circuit and a rather contrived four-event play-off series.

Which all sounds fine, at least at first glance. Advancement based on year-long excellence makes more sense than rewarding a mere six rounds of hot play. But there’s a catch, as far as a goodly chunk of America’s emerging talent is concerned. Instead of “sprinting” their way on to the PGA Tour, the cream of the college circuit is now being asked to spend at least the first year of their professional lives visiting places such as Boise, Idaho; Canonsburg, Pennsylvania and Wichita, Kansas.

Not surprisingly, roughing it in such bleak-sounding outposts isn’t quite what many of tomorrow’s stars have in mind. So they are heading for Europe. Following the splendid example of Peter Uihlein and Brooks Koepka – both of whom already rank inside the world’s top 100 – as many as 86 of Uncle Sam’s nephews this year entered the European Tour’s qualifying process. That’s more than twice as many as in 2012.

As a consequence, we in Europe will be treated to at least one season – and in all likelihood more than two – watching the competitive maturation of America’s finest young golfers. As one of Uihlein’s management team said only recently: “Peter is having such a great time over here. He’s experiencing all kinds of different conditions and weather, all of which is making him a better golfer. And he’ll stay until he gets himself into the top 50. At which point, like everyone else, he will basically be free to play wherever he wants.”

That’s good – no, great – news for the European Tour. At last.

THIS column has long harboured a curious mixture of admiration and contempt for the grandly titled “World Golf Hall of Fame” in St Augustine, Florida. While the facility itself contains a magnificent collection of fascinating memorabilia donated by the game’s all-time greats, the criteria through which new members of the hall are these days elected have long needed a serious shake-up.

The presence of still-active players – the likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson – is but one example of a so-far flawed system. But most egregious is the existence of an “International” section in both the voting and the building itself. It goes without saying – except where the PGA Tour (who run the place) is apparently concerned – that anything with “World” in the title has no need for further explanation or sub-dividing. That the hall indulges in this strange and unnecessary xenophobia also renders its many fine attributes almost null and void. Its wider image, outside the insular “world” it claims to represent, is a laughing stock.

All of which makes all the more welcome news that the method of election is to undergo a major overhaul. As a result of that on-going process, no one will enter the hall in 2014 (maybe they could vote someone out instead – just a thought), a state of affairs that should, in the occasional absence of credible candidates, have been the way of things long before now. Sadly, the need to create a revenue-producing television show has out-weighed the need for true excellence in many of the inductees. The eye-rolling election of President George Bush (senior version) is but one example of such silliness.

Anyway, from 2015 on, the hall will hopefully be electing people based only on true golfing merit – and resisting the temptation to settle for relative mediocrity when no suitably qualified nominees can be found. Discriminating between the US and the rest of the world must also be condemned to the dustbin of history. Here’s hoping.

WE’RE not yet done with Mr Finchem. The oh-so predictable result of last week’s Presidents Cup – an event devised, run and controlled by the PGA Tour – was just another indication of wee Timmy’s rampant megalomania. Maybe America losing seven of the last nine Ryder Cups has something to do with it, but golf’s most powerful man seems unable to see that the present Presidents Cup format all but pre-ordains a US victory. As such, the event has become both a formality and a crushing bore.

It isn’t as if Finchem hasn’t been told either. International captain Nick Price – a true sportsman – all but pleaded for a reduction in the number of games in order to at least partially disguise the lack of depth in his cosmopolitan squad. But oh no, that would have meant the Presidents Cup “copying” the configuration of the Ryder Cup, something the president of Ponte Vedra’s sizeable ego apparently could not countenance.

It is well known in golfing circles that his lack of influence over the five biggest events in the game – the four major championships and the Ryder Cup – is a source of some frustration for Finchem. Hence his development of the Presidents Cup, or “Ryder Cup-lite” as it is sometimes known. Well, in this column anyway.

Barring a change of commissioner, it is hard to see the result of this biennial “contest” being any different in 2015. Viewing figures for anything other than the NFL in the US at this time of year are traditionally miniscule. Two years from now, when the Presidents Cup goes to South Korea, they will be all but non-existent. What a shame.

EARLIER this summer Stacy Lewis, pictured right, won the Women’s British Open at St Andrews, memorably finishing 3-3 at golf’s most famous venue. In doing so, the slightly built American showed an admirable propensity for the vagaries of links golf, one equally evident when she won all five of her matches in the 2008 Curtis Cup at the Old Course. She has all the shots.

But she also has a temper, as became clear last weekend in Beijing, China, where Lewis finished second in the Reignwood Classic, a shot behind local player Shanshan Feng. That was surely bad enough for the disappointed visitor. But the shot the eventual champion struck to the final green only compounded Lewis’ bitterness at losing amidst smog that provoked the US Embassy to advise their citizens not to indulge in any outdoors physical activity.

Hitting a fairway wood to the closing par-5, Feng’s shot looked to be heading into the water hazard to the right of the putting surface. Which it did, only to hit a rock and rebound on to the green. Still travelling at some speed, the ball then struck the flagstick and stopped less than two feet from the cup. It was, to say the least, an outrageous piece of good fortune, the resulting eagle turning Feng’s one-shot deficit into the aforementioned one-shot win.

Clearly, such a turn of events was not to Lewis’ liking. “You’d like to win on a good shot, but clearly it wasn’t a good shot,” she sneered, before launching into a further tirade that highlighted the bias and bad manners displayed by a crowd bereft of golf etiquette. A few hours later, having apparently endured something of a battering on Twitter, Lewis deleted her account, signing off with: “I’m sorry I say what I believe.”

As many of her fellow professionals will surely confirm, complete honesty is not always the best policy when any negativity is inevitably going to come across as sour grapes after a sore loss. In future, Stacy should stick to hitting shots. Commentary is not her thing.

AND finally… US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson is building a children’s course in Missouri. What a great idea to get more youngsters into golf. And just the sort of thing on which the United States Golf Association – motto: “for the good of the game” – should be spending some of the gazillions of dollars the Fox Sports television network will pay them over the next decade or so. Not that they will. Those private jets used to ferry their top executives around are, after all, a bit pricey.