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The World Golf Championship That Wasn't

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
World Golf Championships
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When the World Golf Championship series cranked up in 1997 it seemed like a bright idea whose time had come. It also shaped up as a perfect shield from the ever-growing pressures to create a World Tour that would threaten the future of the established pro tours. But there are some now who think this might be an idea that seems ideal on paper, but bogs down in operation.

At least that was the verdict delivered on the WGC's Match Play Championship, which flopped in Australia in early January.

The original plan, as hatched by the head of the international tours, was to bring the game's best players together more often to places that seldom see big-league golf. To achieve this, they'd put up purses of $5 million for a limited field and the players would come running. It would be good for the PGA Tour, the European Tour, and the other circuits around the world because it would promote international competition and it would be good for the game, too.

To their astonishment, they discovered that even the chance to pocket $1 million for playing four rounds of golf isn't enough to attract the top pros unless it's totally convenient.

Both player and fans have long favored a match play championship. The PGA Championship, which was staged originally as match play, produced some of the game's brightest and most memorable chapters, and many have hoped it might one day return to that format and give the game's Big Four majors better balance.

Thus, the WGC'ss decision to have match play as one of its four world championships was greeted with widespread approval. So why did this year's WGC Match Play crash in Australia?

For one thing, it was in Australia. Second, it was on the fringe of the holiday season. That's a deadly combination when trying to attract rich golfers with young families, and in this case, it was fatal. Nearly one-third of the top 64 players in the world who were eligible to play decided to pass it by, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Colin Montgomerie, Nick Price, Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia and other "name" players. It was, without question, the weakest of the seven WGC's fields to date, and that seems to be an ongoing problem for the organizers.

As a result of this reluctance to go after a winning purse of $1 million, Steve Stricker, No. 90 on the world rankings at the start of the event, defeated Pierre Fulke of Sweden, who held down position No. 49. And at no time during the 36-hole final was there any sign that this was a world championship match. Not only was play dull and ragged, but it moved at the pace of a wounded ant. After playing the course at least a half dozen times during the week, Fulke found it necessary to stroll up the fairway at almost every tee and, with notebook in hand, try to determine how he was going to play the hole. And no one ever told him to move it along.

Almost as disturbing was the lackadaisical play of Ernie Els, No. 2 on the world list and runner-up in two majors in the past season. With Woods and the other big guns at home, the big South African was the odds-on favorite to win, but he seemed lucky to get fourth place money -- $300,000. He lost to Toru Tanigucki of Japan, 4 and 3, in the consolation round. It was plainly one of Els' poorest efforts in recent years.

The absence of the ranking players in an event that was so widely promoted and given huge TV network coverage drew harsh criticism. The bulging pockets of the superstars were cited as the chief cause, and some suggested that perhaps the prize money is ballooning out of reasonable size. How much did Tiger win on the tour last year, was it $9 million or $90 million?

Part of the blame, however, belongs on the doorstep of the WGC officials especially for the Match Play disaster in Melbourne. Scheduling the event for just a day or two after the celebration of New Year's Day was a gaffe. Since most of the eligible players were from the U.S. and Europe, they would have had to cut into their at-home holiday time to get started for far-off Australia. Tour officials should have been more sensitive to that. Indeed, the scheduling of all the WGC events seems in need of more study and more consultation with the players.

Last year, three of the WGC tournaments were crammed into a two-month period at the time of year that is generally regarded as the players' off-season, especially for the high-ranking players who feel they've earned a rest. Some of that time period is used to catch up on other contractual obligations, sponsor exhibitions, photo shoots for advertising, etc.

Thus, it has been a struggle for officials to come up with fields that live up to the world championship billing. In the WGC Stroke Play Championship in Spain last year, nine of the top names were missing.

It does help that a factor in the format of the WGC events calls for two of the four tournaments to be at U.S. sites, while the others rotate 'around the globe. But it is difficult to spot the WGC tournaments on the schedule without putting some kind of pressure on the long-standing events of the various tours. That is why so many events in these early years of the WGC have been pushed into late-season spots much to some players' chagrin.

With the match play at Melbourne now out of the way, the remaining three 2001 WGC events should have smoother sailing. The NEC Invitational will be at Firestone in Ohio in late August, and the American Express Stroke Play comes up in St. Louis in mid-September. The WGC World Cup also moves up to mid-November and will play in Japan, always a favored destination.

A trouble-free season could help the WGC gain credibility, but, again, so much hangs on its ability to corral the top-ranking players. The original plan to make these championships "must-play" events by putting up whopping $5 million purses hasn't had that impact. Thanks largely to Tiger Woods input over these past three years, the pro tours have been so successful that many events already have prize money of $4million. What's another million?

Of course, the absence of the big names in some of these tournaments has to bring joy and great anticipation to the lesser lights of the tour. With Tiger and some of the other biggies out of action, that big winner's check must seem closer than ever. Take our new World Match Play Champion Steve Stricker. He hadn't won a tournament in four years and was so low in the rankings that only family and friends went down far enough on the list to find his name. In four days, he wins twice his total earnings of the past two years. And better yet, after the year's first event, Steve Stricker winds up at the top of the money list leading Tiger Woods by $1 million. Try telling Steve that dreams never come true.

On the other side of the coin, the World Golf Championship bosses have to be rooting for a dream of their own.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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