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When the World Golf Championship series decided to include match play as one of its super-colossal, multi-million-dollar events spotted around the globe, it came as a near-shock.
For years, match play had been brushed aside as tournament golf exploded in all directions. But now that it was back and elevated to the highest level, the golf world seemed a better place.
One-on-one is the game closest to the average golfer's heart.
On a personal level, I had campaigned for a return of the PGA Championship to match play, in which format it had contributed so many glittering chapters to golf history. I encountered little disagreement, but then nothing happened. When the WGC's decision came I wasn't prepared for it. And I wasn't prepared for the recent cloud that has come over the event.
Tiger Woods, who lost in the quarter-finals of the inaugural matches last year when Jeff Maggert took him at 2 and 1, has announced that he will not be around when the WGC Match Play Championship is played again in early January. And, unbelievably, that has been the signal for the top players to start bailing out.
At the core of the matter is not simply following Tiger's lead - although, like it or not, the players have been doing just that for the past few years. And it's not the format. Quite simply, it will be played in Australia, starting Jan. 4, and these two factors are deadly in terms of attracting the world's best golfers.
The "down-under" country is one of the loveliest places on the planet, with wall-to-wall golfers and courses. But it's in Australia, and if you're one of the 64 players eligible to play, it will be a long ride getting there. And long rides to faraway places at holiday time are not a young, rich golfer's idea of living the good life.
One might think that the chance to pick up a $1 million check for four days of playing a game one enjoys might be some incentive. Not necessarily. Nine U. S. players in the potential field made $1 million or more last year (Woods made triple that). Another 27 pocketed over $1 million in PGA Tour prize money. Obviously, it will take more than money to lure these fellows from the family hearth at that time of the year.
Further, half of them will be all finished after one day, eliminated by the match play format. They will get $25,000 as a consolation check, but, again, that is little more than pocket money for the millionaires.
If more than a few of the star attractions follow Tiger out of the lineup, it could easily put the Match Play Championship on very shaky ground for the future. And that would be a blow for the game. But perhaps the fault lies not with the players, but with the schedule-makers. Indeed, perhaps the entire matter of the tour schedule should be studied more carefully.
When the WGC was formed, heavily backed by the PGA Tour, the players clapped gleefully when they learned there would be five international events of varying structures played at scattered places around the world, each with a $5 million purse and $1 million to the winner. Essentially, it was the PGA Tour's way of thwarting a world tour, which Greg Norman was trying to put in place. Such a tour, with huge dollars involved, could have meant big headaches for the American circuit since Norman was planning to go head-to-head against a number of established events and had more than a fair chance of luring some of the top players into his tent.
Things didn't work out as planned. When the curtain went up on the first WGC extravaganza, the American Express Championship at Valderrama, in southern Spain, in November 1999, some of the game's biggest names were missing. The list included David Duval, who was No. 2 in the world at the time, Fred Couples, Jesper Parnevik, Mark O'Meara and Lee Jansen, among others. And, oh yes, Greg Norman.
The organizers were stunned, especially since American Express had been such a good friend to the pros over the years. They looked for a reason. Fred Couples supplied it in capsule form: "The guys will come up with good reasons - like a grandmother died, or something like that. I know it sounds crazy to pass up a chance to play for a $1 million check, but Valderrama's a long way."
I can remember vividly a distraught Fred Corcoran moaning about his World Cup troubles. He had negotiated long and hard to play his annual team event in Melbourne, Australia, and now he was having problems trying to get the players to go.
"I can't understand it,' he moaned, "all you hear these days is that the jet planes are shrinking the world. Americans hop over to London to shop - like going to the supermarket. The pros think they have to get there with Christopher Columbus."
That year, instead of tapping the U. S. Open and PGA champs for the American team, as customary, Corcoran had to go down the money list as far as No. 10 to fill the two places. It was the weakest U. S. team ever fielded.
I found out first hand what Corcoran was faced with after he died and I was asked to fill his chair. The World Cup was played in the November-December period, after the regular tour season finished, and for a time we had destinations like Indonesia and Thailand, among others. I tried everything but draping myself in the American flag as I told players it was a patriotic duty to respond. I thought I'd have an easier time when we booked Bogota, Colombia as our site, but just when we were putting the team together, some rebels kidnapped an American businessman and held him for ransom. That almost cleaned me out of players.
Needless to say, there are some legitimate reasons for some players to avoid late-season or post-season events. Fatigue is the most common. It's a long season, and the only way some can keep going is by having a reasonable rest period of a month or more. And then there are commitments to sponsors who keep sending those nice checks in the mail - obligations that can't be fulfilled during the regular season. Of course, one of the problems with the schedule is that it never seems to end. One season runs right into the next.
Woods was saying something like that when he revealed that he was passing up the World Match Player event next January. Unfortunately for the WGC, he spilled the beans almost six months before the event and others began to follow immediately. There'll be more.
Tiger's spectacular spree over the past three years has been good for the game in many ways, but it could have its negative side, too. He can't play every event on the schedule, but when he does miss one often there is financial damage or a miffed sponsor, lighter attendance and lower TV ratings.
That's another problem to solve, gentlemen.
(c) Copyright John M. Ross
August 1, 2000
By September, 72-hole stroke play tournaments are stale, writes Brandon Tucker, who suggests a new alternative to FedEx Cup events that takes a page from the FIFA World Cup. The idea blends the drama of match play with the necessity of stroke play to hold television viewership.
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