THE argument about the merit of quantity over quality has long been a problem for the European Tour. Should any opportunity to fill up the now almost year-long schedule be grasped, no matter the level of prize money or character of the venue? Or should executive director George O’Grady and his team set a higher minimum standard in terms of cash and courses, even if that means fewer events?
Sadly for those in favour of the latter route, the former is clearly winning the battle. According to the European Tour website: “The 2014 International schedule presents 12 months of enthralling tournament action featuring 48 tournaments in 26 countries worldwide.”
Which it doesn’t, of course. So far this “year” – which began back in November – the 2014 tour has comprised five tournaments in South Africa – two limited-field events and three boasting relatively low money and well below-average fields – and the Hong Kong Open. It has, to say the least, not been pretty.
Still, amid the darkness there is some light. Over the next three weeks, many of the world’s superior players will make (well-compensated) appearances in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai. Thereafter, however, things will return to what is increasingly the norm. It’s a harsh reality but, given the lack of real quality on view as almost everyone of any real note makes his way to the relative riches of the PGA Tour, the European Tour might as well shut down in February, March and the first half of April.
So what’s to be done? In a world where the best performers live up to their “professional” title – they go where the money is – how does the European Tour attract/persuade more of its bigger names to tee up more often?
“One of the problems is that the tour has never really penalised its top players for a lack of support,” says former Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart, now one of the more interesting and informed contributors to Sky’s golf coverage. “It has always given them a choice when it came to where they should play – here or in the States. But that strategy hasn’t worked. Virtually all of them have all but disappeared in any case. That’s disappointing on two counts. The players have displayed little loyalty to the place where they all came from. And the tour hasn’t stood up to them enough.
“Imagine what it feels like to be a promoter of a European Tour event. If you don’t pay out large sums in appearance money, it is virtually impossible to get a field of any real quality. That scenario is highlighted by the fact that an average European Tour event now carries a lot fewer world-ranking points than does one in the US. Which is just one more reason for the leading players to stay across the Atlantic. If things keep going the way they have been, we are going to have virtually no players of any real distinction competing in Europe.”
That’s a pretty bleak assessment coming from one who has viewed the many and varied foibles of the European Tour from so many angles – fledgling then established pro, Ryder Cup player, struggling journeyman and now expert pundit.
But it has obvious merit.
Cowed into submission by the almost overwhelming need to provide a highly competitive Ryder Cup match – and so preserve the vast amounts of income derived from the biennial contest – O’Grady has clearly decided against calling the stars’ collective bluff and has given them what amounts to a free pass on to his now almost worldwide circuit. This year, apart from the majors and the World Golf Championships, the requirement asked of Europe’s US-based stars is a mere 13 European Tour events if a player competes in his national open, 15 if he does not. Either way, hardly the biggest ask.
“If I was the tour I would use the Ryder Cup as more of a bargaining tool,” contends Coltart, who played in the 1999 matches at the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts. “If the players really do want to play, I’d ask for more of a commitment to the qualifying process. What I wouldn’t do is bend over backwards to make it as easy as possible for them to make the side without actually playing in Europe very often. That, of course, is a brave move. But, if a guy can’t commit to Europe and play in Europe, why does he deserve to represent Europe?
“Not that long ago, things were different. I grew up on the tour playing against Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam on a regular basis. They played a lot of their golf in Europe. Now, the best Europeans hardly ever do that.”
One option could be to copy the system employed in the world of tennis. In an effort to help smaller events and/or countries get sponsors, Andy Murray and his fellow luminaries are obliged to compete in nine “Masters” events (in which the winner earns 1,000 ranking points), four tournaments awarding half that amount and two where only 250 points are on offer to the eventual champion. The players can pick which ones they enter and so can spread the load across the whole season. And the penalty for failing to comply is a ranking-point deduction.
“The players should have an obligation to support some of the lesser tournaments,” continues Coltart. “If golf doesn’t do that now, the whole thing is in danger of collapse. I’d like to see the tour going to the various agents and telling them their players have got to start showing up in less fashionable places. Not all at once, but in twos and threes so that the whole tour can benefit. It’s not enough to play only at the Open, the BMW PGA Championship and maybe the Scottish Open. The tour needs to be able to go to prospective promoters and give them a realistic expectation that at least some of the star names will appear. Otherwise, what is the incentive for them to invest their cash?”
Good question, one the tour brass no doubt wrestles with. And to be fair, it isn’t an easy equation to solve. With so many journeymen players moaning and groaning about lack of opportunities to compete, the temptation is surely to go anywhere and everywhere, no matter the lack of quality inherent in the resulting events. But that is short-term thinking. Longer term, the European Tour needs to “man up”.
“I’d like to see more events in Europe,” concludes Coltart. “I’d like to see every cardholder given the opportunity to play a full season. I’d like to see the best guys competing more in Europe. I’d like the tour to be more forceful with the Ryder Cup. Right now, the players are taking advantage. But they would look bad if they were asked to play more and then did not do so, given how much they claim the Ryder Cup means to them. If that is so, the tour should be exploiting that desire more than they do at present.”
All of which seems like sound common sense to this observer. As a former editor of mine was wont to say in response to any inactivity on my part: “Get it bloody done.”