Has 'The Players' lost its lustre?
The story behind Lee Westwood’s decision to skip the Players Championship
EARLY this year, when Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of communications, learned that Lee Westwood had decided not to play in this year’s Players Championship, he did what every consummate politician would do in similar circumstances: he played down the significance of the Englishman’s snub.
“Lee is a great player and, ultimately, if he chooses not to play in this year’s Players Championship he will be missed,” Votaw admitted. “However, the Players will still have one of the deepest and best fields in golf,” he added, and he was quite right, at least up to a point.
The Players Championship will have “one of the deepest and best fields” on this year’s international schedule.
Even without Westwood, not to mention his Ryder Cup colleague, Rory McIlroy, who subsequently also indicated he will miss the event, it will feature a top-quality field, albeit one that is not quite as impressive as its organisers claim.
They won’t admit it in public, but Votaw and his PGA Tour colleagues must be quietly concerned that the World No 2, Westwood, and the high-ranking McIlroy seemingly have no qualms about missing an event the US Tour has always marketed as the game’s “Fifth Major”.
On a different level, they must also be even more worried that the likes of Westwood, McIlroy and current World No 1, Martin Kaymer, all chose not to join the PGA Tour this season, thereby limiting themselves to just 10 starts (realistically the four majors, three WGC events and three other PGA Tour-sanctioned events).
When Greg Norman first mooted the idea of a World Tour, US Tour officials were able to strangle the concept at birth simply because they had complete control over almost all the...
Westwood told the media he had decided to miss the Players Championship because it did not fit into his schedule and it is clear there is more than a little truth in that explanation.
But one suspects he would still have teed up at Sawgrass had his absence threatened his standing in the game.
Seventeen years ago, when Greg Norman first mooted the idea of a World Tour, US Tour officials were able to strangle the concept at birth simply because they had complete control over almost all the top players. However, the game has changed a great deal in the interim. It is now much more global and, as the European Tour has developed, so the overall influence of the US Tour has begun to wane.
Ironically, one of the biggest influences in this process has been the rise in the importance of the WGC events, the very same events the US Tour sanctioned at least in part in order to deflect some of the criticism aimed at them by Norman’s supporters.
Nowadays, three out of four of these events might still be staged in the US, something which rankles in some quarters, but they do provide non-PGA Tour members with access to lots of world ranking points.
The higher European Tour members can climb in the official rankings, the more ranking points they play for when they return home and compete in, say, the BMW PGA Championship or the Dubai Desert Classic.
Nowadays, at the start of each season, no top international tournament player worth his salt will ever finalise his schedule without factoring in the number of ranking points on offer at the various events open to them. That’s a prerequisite, and if, like Westwood, they organise their schedule carefully enough, they can then afford to miss a Players Championship or two without compromising their position and can happily spend a week at home relaxing with their families instead.
In short, it’s called playing the system and the simple fact is the top international players have learned do it much better than their American counterparts.
While the Americans rile about the Europeans travelling the world hoovering up appearance money, the latter are actually garnering ranking points and the results at the top of the ranking are there for all to see.