Preview: UBS Hong Kong Open

One of the most pivotal tournaments on the European Tour calendar will be contested this week at the Hong Kong Golf Club, Fanling. Whilst it may not be the European Tour finale, it has the potential to set up an incredibly exciting end to a magnificent season. There are some big names in the field, and all eyes will once again be on Rory McIlroy, the only player in the field capable of depriving Luke Donald of one of the greatest ever achievements in sport.  It has taken Donald only twelve tournaments in Europe to accumulate an almost unassailable sum of money, but a first or second place finish for the Ulsterman would stimulate some added intrigue in Dubai. There can surely be very few golf fans that want Donald to be overhauled, but as the thrilling culmination to the 2011 PGA Tour season showed, it is more of a spectacle when it comes down to the wire. This week, though, further sub plots include the battle for the top sixty on the Race to Dubai money list (to win the chance to play for a staggering $7.5 million next week), and the battle for the top 118, to retain playing privileges for the 2012 season.

Peter Lawrie and Stephen Gallacher currently occupy the 60th and 61st spots in the Race to Dubai, with the latter only 17,000 euros behind the former. However, as Lawrie rightly points out, in the grand scheme of things, missing out on one lucrative tournament is not a big issue. “It could be far worse”, admits Lawrie, “I could be down at the other end fighting for my card and looking at going to Tour School, so worrying about the Dubai World Championship or going to Tour School is just a completely different thing.” No need to tell that to fellow Irishman, Gareth Maybin, who is precariously placed at 120th in the standings. He is currently 9,000 euros away from earning his card for next season, but with Markus Brier, Phillip Price and Marco Tullo (115th, 116th and 117th, respectively) not playing this week, it is in his hands. Keith Horne occupies the 119th spot, and simply making the cut might be enough for him. With lucrative sponsorship deals, expansion into the East, and ever increasing prize pools, more pressure is arguably exerted on those fighting for their European Tour cards than will be on those in contention for victory come Sunday.

Winner: Justin Rose – Has played very well of late, including two top ten finishes at the Barclays Singapore Open and the WGC HSBC Champions Tournament. Both he, and defending champion Ian Poulter, will be buoyed by a tied second place finish at the World Cup of Golf last week, which included a sumptuous nine under par 63 in the final round foursomes.

To Come Close: Rory McIlroy – Has a fabulous record in his last four European Tour events, including two third places finished, and played some good golf last week. This is a big tournament for McIlroy. He will have doubts about his putting after last week, and it will be interesting to see if he can stay in contention for the Race to Dubai crown.

Notable Groups:

Molinari (E), McIlory, Poulter – The pressure will be off for Edoardo, who is placed comfortably in the top sixty. Poulter won this tournament last year, and played some good golf last week, most notably in round four. McIlroy is full of confidence, and will play aggressive golf to try and distance himself from the field.

Fisher (R), Liang and Daly – Ross Fisher is one of the most exciting players on tour to watch when he gets on a roll. Will be fascinating to see how Daly is received after his shocking behavior in Australia, when he stormed off the golf course after running out of balls at the Australian Open.

Rose, Jiménez, Yang – Star studded three ball. Yang will have a massive following in his native Asia, as will Jiménez, who is rightly popular all over the world. Rose, as covered, is playing well, and if he can find some form on the greens and maintain the consistency of his long game, he won’t be far away from the lead on Sunday.

Advertisements

Should Golf be an Olympic Sport?

“I’d love to be an Olympian – doesn’t that sound good?!” – the thoughts of Padraig Harrington in the lead up to the 2009 PGA Championship, after golf was placed on the list of potential Olympic sports for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Indeed it does, Padraig, but ask any sportsman and I’m sure they would say the same thing. It simply isn’t sufficient reasoning. The arguments stretch across a broad spectrum, from ethics to popularity, but the fact of the matter is that Olympic golf will not become the pinnacle of the sport. Who could genuinely proclaim that it would surpass the Ryder Cup in terms of stature, both internal and external? What would a young, Chinese golfer prefer: to win gold at the Olympics and represent one sixtieth of his nation’s medal haul, or win the Open Championship at the home of golf? You only have to look at Tennis, a sport with many social and structural parallels with golf, to answer the question of prestige. It was reinstated to the Olympics over twenty years ago, and only a severely misguided and deluded individual would dare to claim that it takes precedent over any of the Grand Slams or the Davis Cup. Golf, I fear, would follow the same formula, and for that reason, amongst others, it should not have been granted inclusion for the 2016 Olympic Games.

An article, written in August 2009 by Randy Cohen, put forth the ethical argument against golf as an Olympic Sport, and made some points that I feel need to be dispelled. His main arguments come with regards to environmental impact, the issue of social standing and class divide in golf, and further social factors, including gender. Cohen has seemingly ignored the fact that golf itself promotes integrity, respect, and sportsmanship, with players honest enough to referee and call penalties on themselves. Granted, the culture of ‘exclusive’ country clubs exists, but that comes down to the mentality of those in power, not the game itself. Similarly, affirmations that “no honourable person can play at a segregated club (Augusta)” carry next to no weight. It is not for the golfers themselves to govern policy at clubs as steeped in tradition as Augusta National. Modern golf, both amateur and professional, clearly transcends class boundaries (look at players such as Cabrera and Ballesteros who started out as caddies, and those like McIlroy, whose golfing career was facilitated by his parents working night shifts and 100 hour weeks), and is affordable to the vast majority through falling equipment prices and municipal courses. True, some chemicals and fertilisers need to be used to construct new golf courses, but the same can be said for any form of construction, and a team of British scientists argue in ‘The Biologist’ that “many golf courses actively promote nature conservation”, as well as being thrifty with water supplies (which are purchased fairly). As far as I’m concerned, the ethical stance doesn’t hold up, neither does the frankly moronic argument that golf shouldn’t be included because it is a game, not a sport.

Phil Mickleson raised some interesting points when questioned on the matter, again before the 2009 PGA Championship, claiming that Olympic golf would do wonders for the game: “It would bring in 168 different countries and their Olympic foundations and all those revenues… going towards the growth of the game of golf.” In theory, this argument makes sense, as does his argument about benefits for suppliers, architects, the media, and ultimately, the players. My issue comes with consideration of scale. Yes, every country wants to be represented at the Olympics, but I find it very hard to believe that those countries without an existing investment in the game would pump in large amounts of money, exclusively on the back of an event that takes place every four years. It takes a higher level of commitment and prioritisation. As it currently stands, there is only space for 60 players (the top 15 in the world, plus 45 others, at a maximum of two per nation, unless more than two of the same nationality are in the world top 15). So, indirectly, Olympic golf appearances come down to success in tour golf, which demands investment from organisational bodies outside of Olympic jurisdiction. There has to be both internal and external collaboration. It requires golf to be put at the forefront of respective countries’ sporting agendas. Simply put, the inclusion of golf in the Olympics isn’t going to lead to a series of changing attitudes on the game and a drastic increase in its following, as some have professed, not to mention the fact that it would completely disrupt the scheduling of both the PGA and European Tours.

Another key issue with golf as an Olympic sport is that players play for themselves and for their own personal remuneration and benefit. The event closest to the proposed format for the Olympics is the World Cup of Golf. Each country has two members and the ultimate goal is victory for national pride, with the exception being that it is not an individual stroke play event. In golf, representing your country is not seen as a priority. The teams at the World Cup are so much weaker than they should be (based on world rankings and priorities), it is an event that is played in the off season, and it is an event that is much less popular than the majors, World Golf Championships, and even some of the larger events on tour. The reality is that golf fans and players place far greater emphasis on the majors, because of tradition and strength of field. With a field resembling that of an average tour event, Olympic golf will struggle to captivate “new markets on a global scale.” Strong fields and great players make golf exciting and inspire new followers, something that simply cannot be defined by nationality. For any sort of credibility, the field needs to be drastically extended to include the top 50 in the world; then we can start thinking about ways to incorporate a wider variety of nationalities. Even then, I know what tournament I’d rather win.

As Mickelson points out, with regard to the majors, “we still capture the same audience that are already interested in the game.” How will this change with a format that creates a weaker field than any major championship? Wide scale exposure and publicity could be argued, but the issues remain: realistically, press coverage will be minimal in countries without a pre-existing golfing culture, and the vast majority of the coverage will be interactive ‘via the red button’, meaning the same people that always watch golf will tune in. Others won’t. And can you blame them? Even some staunch golf fans may feel the same way. The beauty of the Olympics is that draws global attention to sports often ignored or scarcely covered by the world’s press. How many of us can genuinely say that we watched the 2011 Sailing World Championships, or the Track Cycling World Cup in Kazakhstan? Very few. And yet, when we watch the Olympic action unfold in the velodrome, we wonder why we don’t watch indoor cycling religiously. The Olympics gives professionals in smaller sports with minimal followings and exposure the chance to be national heroes. Sports like golf, tennis and football do not conform with the essence of the Olympics. Why do you think football tickets were the last to sell out for the 2012 Games, even though it is the most popular game on the planet? The majority of sports fans would know the number one ranked player in the aforementioned sports. Could the same be said for sprint Kayaking, Archery or Badminton? No, and yet we become fully engrossed and embroiled in the storylines emanating from the lesser known sports. That is the splendour of the Olympics, and something that risks being lost by the intrusion of mainstream sports.

With the proposed format for golf, the field will be relatively weak, and Olympic golf will not be the spectacle that it could be. Even if all the top 15 in the world elected to play, the field would not come remotely close to the strength and depth of a major championship field.  Therefore, Olympic victory would provide less credibility than a major or world golf championship, meaning it would not be the highest honour in the sport. Furthermore – hypothetically – how can it be fair for someone ranked sixteenth in the world to be ineligible due to two compatriots in the top fifteen, when someone ranked 400th could enter and win, just because he/she happens to hail from a nation with very few professional golfers? I would put my mortgage on saying that every player in world golf would prefer the claret jug, or the green jacket, to the Olympic gold medal; that is the nature of the sport. If it is not the highest possible achievement, then it has no place in the Olympics.

Does Yani Tseng Deserve a Shot at PGA Tour Glory?

Yani Tseng has had a pretty good year. Eleven victories worldwide: seven on the LPGA Tour, including two majors, and an incredible advert for women’s golf (which, inexplicably, continues to struggle, given the phenomenal strength of the ladies game at the moment). It is easy to understand why her performance has led to calls for a PGA Tour appearance, and even easier to understand why the Puerto Rico Open, arguably the weakest tournament on the PGA Tour schedule, (and surely one that would not exist without the World Golf Championships) jumped on the bandwagon and offered a sponsor’s exemption to the young Taiwanese sensation. Will Yani Tseng be the best female golfer of all time? Quite possibly. Should this translate into a PGA Tour appearance? No. There are many arguments for both sides, but the reality is that, unless wholesale changes are made, and the nature of the game is addressed, it is something that simply shouldn’t happen. The problem is that aforementioned changes are implausible, and will never come to fruition.  It isn’t that Tseng doesn’t deserve a chance, but it paves the way for other women to play, leaving two options; the acceptance of two-way movement between the PGA and LPGA Tour’s, or the creation of a mixed golf tour. Neither is workable, and neither will happen. If Tseng continues to get sponsor’s exemptions, the PGA Tour are going to have to step in, and either ban the practice or insist on exemptions for other women.

Firstly, both points of view need to be considered, and we must examine why women are offered the chance to play on the PGA Tour. Does it come down to ability to compete, or intrigue, monetary gain and artificial promotion of a tournament? Exemptions offered on such grounds should be outlawed. Marketing of players already on the tour falls into an entirely different category, but bringing in someone from outside, without golfing reasons taking precedent, is not something we should be encouraging. It is debatable as to whether Tseng can compete at this level, but is that the sponsors’ main concern?

Those that say Tseng simply can’t compete on the PGA Tour need to look at the statistics, and as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t a legitimate argument. Her average driving distance is 269.1 yards, only .6 of a yard shorter than Brian Gay, someone who has won on the PGA Tour. Her putting, short game and iron play are exemplary, and those that naively dismiss her chances because women aren’t as powerful as men need to reassess their wholly inadequate and stereotypical point of view. Her short game would obviously be put under strenuous pressure, but we can’t sit here and say that it would crumble.  With time and practice, a victory for Tseng is just about within the realms of possibility. Time and practice on the men’s tour are unattainable, either way you look at it. If she accepts an exemption, and misses the cut, she won’t be afforded another. If she makes the cut and does well, more offers will pour in, and officials will have to step in and call for potentially groundbreaking reassessment.  She won’t be able to hone her skills on the man’s tour, and if that is the case, is it right to take a spot away from a male who has qualified; someone that has a feasible chance of winning? For me, this is one of the most exciting things about men’s golf. Anyone, on their day or week, has a legitimate chance of victory. Just look at what college players have achieved this year.  Relying on a sponsor’s exemption and, going by history, playing only the one tournament on the PGA Tour means two things: the practice of playing golf is second to media hullabaloo, in itself wrong, and perhaps more importantly, she has absolutely no chance of winning. Thus, her appearance, or the appearance of any female on the PGA Tour, is not for golfing reasons, and as such, must be prohibited.

The Michelle Wie appearance was downright ridiculous, and she had even less chance of winning than Tseng. But again, that is missing the point. It comes down to social experimentation, which in turn shows a lack of respect for the sport. Allowing women to legitimately qualify for events is another matter. It has happened before, in the case of Isabelle Beisiegel, and will happen again. If this continues, the roots of a nascent, unisexual tour will grow and grow. If a woman does one day manage to qualify for a PGA Tour event, how will the struggling LPA cope with the inevitable flocking of its top stars? What are the implications of such an eventuality for the PGA Tour – will it have to disband to make way for a new organisation, given that it will surely be impracticable to maintain, promote and develop the LPGA Tour, the PGA Tour, and a new tour? Will the PGA tour expand to cater for such change, and how will this effect existing sponsorship? Consideration of even the most basic of questions reveal the insurmountable problems caused by women’s attempts to play on the mens tour. I’m not saying they shouldn’t; I just can’t see any possible resolution.

Tseng has some serious thinking to do. Does she want to be remembered primarily for being absolutely dominant on the women’s tour, or for joining the list of women that tried, and failed, to make an impression on the PGA Tour? This assumption of failure is based purely on golfing factors, even before considering the enormous pressure on her shoulders. Trying to prove to yourself that you can compete with men, whilst trying not to disappoint the millions of women and Asians that are willing you to succeed, would have an effect on anyone.  As said in the proverbs, if you don’t believe in yourself, you aren’t going to succeed. Does Tseng believe she can challenge first time out, if at all? “I wouldn’t care about the results because I’d just want to enjoy the feeling of playing with guys and learning from them to further improve my skills.” No further analysis required. Why should it only be her that enjoys the feeling of playing with men? There are many parallels between Yani Tseng and Tiger Woods. The difference is that, when Tiger was the best in his field, he wasn’t able to go anywhere for a fresh challenge. Should Tseng be able to?

In terms of what men and women should be able to do in golf, where do we draw the line, if Tseng is allowed to play on the PGA Tour? Officials have set a dangerous precedent by allowing Sorenstam and Wie to participate, and it must be considered a blessing in disguise that neither made a cut. Another huge issue relates to equality. If we allow women to play on the PGA Tour to test themselves against the men, then why shouldn’t a man be able to play on the LPGA Tour to see how he fares against the women? It has to be equal in reverse. Imagine the outcry should it be suggested that Luke Donald play an LPGA event, a Ladies tour event. Impossible. If that is the case, it simply cannot be allowed the other way around. The only fair way to integrate men and women would be by creating a mixed golf tour, a marketing nightmare given the current golfing climate. Furthermore, how would you go about persuading the men to play on this tour? You wouldn’t, plain and simple. We can’t give way to intrigue, as tempting as it is. The same reasoning should preclude her from playing on the Nationwide Tour. It isn’t that I don’t want to see it, it’s that it, contrary to what many may believe, is not in the best interests of the game, and the best interests of the game must outweigh all other factors. That should be the reality. Tseng is yet to appear on the PGA Tour. In the interests of egalitarianism, amongst other things, let’s hope it remains that way.

The Ten Greatest Professional Shots of my Lifetime

The picturesque celebration of shot making that is Valderrama has provided me with some inspiration for my next piece: the ten greatest shots that I have had the privilege to observe. Many may not agree with my selections, but I have compiled this list based on the strong emotions I felt whilst being privy to such miraculous displays of golfing genius. Rose tinted spectacles at the ready…

10.)    Sergio Garcia’s shot from under a tree, 1999 PGA Championship

A fresh faced, nineteen year old Sergio Garcia is battling it out with Tiger Woods to be crowned the 1999 PGA Champion. He is two behind on the sixteenth tee, and his drive settles next to a root of a large tree. It seems an impossible shot, and one that perhaps only an exuberant and  confident young man would take on. Garcia plays for an enormous fade, and makes perfect contact, despite having both his eyes shut at impact. His ball inexplicably finds the putting surface, and Woods makes bogey to lose his two shot lead. No one that watched that shot will ever forget the image of Sergio sprinting up the fairway, and jumping at precisely the right moment to see his phenomenal shot somehow land on the green. A wonderful moment and one that encapsulates the excitement of major championship golf.

9.)    Luke Donald’s putt, 15th hole, 2011 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic

All the hype coming into the final event of the PGA Tour fall series was on Webb Simpson and Luke Donald. Rarely have two players been the focus of such undivided attention. Simpson, taking second place the week before at the McGladrey Classic, possessed a commanding lead in the money rankings, with Donald needing no worse that a three way tie for second to have any chance of taking the title. After nine holes on Sunday, Donald’s chances appear to be over. He starts with two birdies, but makes no further progress towards a 62 that he felt he needed for victory. An up and down at the 10th hole starts a simply stunning run, and he has made five in a row and is seven under for his round coming to the 15th tee. He hits a slightly fat tee shot, and finds the putting surface, just over 40 feet short of the hole. Donald is the best putter in the game, but no one expects him to knock in a lengthy birdie putt for six in a row, especially given his tendency to struggle under pressure. He strikes a nice putt which is tracking all the way, before it falls into middle of the cup at perfect speed. A glorious birdie two and, in my view, the most important birdie of his career.

8.)    Justin Leonard’s monster putt, 1999 Ryder Cup

As much as it dismays me as an Englishman and European, Leonard’s putt to win the 1999 Ryder Cup has to be included. Context also makes his putt even more special. The U.S. trailed 10-6 after the first two days, leaving a deficit that had never been overcome on Sunday in Ryder Cup history. The U.S. fought back brilliantly, but a bogey from Mark O’Meara on the 18th led to defeat by Padraig Harrington, meaning Leonard needed a half against Jose Maria Olazabal to win the Ryder Cup. Both find the putting surface in two on the par 4 17th hole, and Leonard is to putt first; a tricky 45 foot, uphill double breaker, through the shadows, for the most improbable of victories. He strikes it perfectly; it climbs a slight ridge and goes straight in the middle of the hole. Pandemonium ensues. There has never been a more opportune moment to hole a putt of such magnitude.

7.)    Tiger Wood’s approach to the 18th, 2002 U.S. Open

According to David Feherty, Tiger’s approach to the 18th at Bethpage Black, from 210 yards out of a fairway bunker, was the “most remarkable piece of athleticism I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Surely no one can dispute such a claim. Tiger’s drive has finished in the left hand side of the bunker, severely restricting his stance. He has a hanging lie, an uphill, 210 yard second, and a 30mph left to right wind to contend with.  Somehow, he manages to mould himself to the slope, create hook spin and land the ball fifteen feet from the pin. “The best part about it”, proclaims Tiger, “is that I made the putt,” a putt that gave him a three shot victory. A remarkable golf shot that very few, if any, would have attempted, let alone pulled off and turned into a birdie three.

6.)    Craig Parry’s holed second at the 18th hole, 2004 Ford Championship at Doral

The hardest hole on a course called the ‘Blue Monster’ is enough to fill anyone with dread. Not only that, but in 2004, it was the toughest hole on tour, with a scoring average of 4.48, comprised, in part, by the 125 bogeys, 53 double bogeys, and four ‘others’ that were recorded during the Ford Championship. With some parallels to the 18th at Firestone, there is water all the way down the left, and if you happen to find the fairway, you are left with a lengthy approach to a green surrounded by water, sand and heavy rough. In 2004, Craig Parry and Scott Verplank are tied for the lead after 72 holes. Both find the fairway on the first play-off hole, and Parry is set to play first. He is talked out of hitting a five iron by his brother and caddy, and casually strikes a perfect six iron, lands it six feet short of the pin, and listens to the crowd tell him that it has ended up in the cup. Even Verplank is forced into a smile, and concedes: “I guess he was supposed to win.”

5.)    Shaun Micheel’s approach to the 18th, 2003 PGA Championship

“One of the greatest shots you will see under major championship pressure.” Shaun Micheel, appearing in only his third major, and coming off a bogey at the 71st hole, finds the primary rough with his playing partner, Chad Campbell, one behind at the time, splitting the fairway with his drive. Micheel pulls out a seven iron, makes a great swing, and stares down the ball as his caddy shouts ‘be right.’ Under the circumstances, right does not come close to doing the shot justice. It pitches fifteen feet short of the pin and runs up, settling two inches away from the cup. Micheel, who has no idea how close he is, takes off his cap and waves it around in triumph as his ball and the flag become brilliantly visible. A stunning shot and example of how to deal with pressure, and a major championship for a man that didn’t pick up any shots on the par 5’s over the course of the week; a man who confessed after the round that he would have been happy to make the cut.

4.)    Tiger Woods’ holed chip, 16th hole, 2005 Masters

“In your life have you ever seen anything like that?” screams a frankly overwhelmed commentator. He is referring, of course, to Tiger Woods’ miraculous chip-in from the back of the 16th green at Augusta National, one of the most memorable shots in the history of golf. His tee shot must have looked perfect in the air, but the adrenalin of being in the lead of a major championship translated into extra distance. His ball ends up inches short of the second cut of rough, making his chip shot even more difficult. He could easily have left it short of the slope, or over hit it and left himself an undulating, fifteen footer for par. Extreme precision was required, and extreme precision was delivered. His ball lands just on the green, spins on the second bounce, and starts to trundle down the slope towards the hole. Silence quickly changes to animation as the crowd realise what might come to fruition. His ball seemingly stops agonisingly short of the hole, but rotates one last time, provides a wonderfully fortuitous advert for Nike, teeters on the edge of the hole and creeps into the cup. The subsequent celebration of Woods and Williams says it all.

3.)    Graeme McDowell’s albatross, 17th hole, Valderrama, 2007

Of all the holes to make albatross, and McDowell chooses the 17th at Valderrama. Not only that, but he does it on Sunday afternoon to catapult himself into a tie for the lead. The perils of the 17th at Valderrama need no further explanation, and one can only imagine its difficulty when coupled with the added pressure of being in contention at the final event of the calendar year. McDowell hits a good drive to the left primary rough, to leave a long iron to the treacherous green.  A perfect connection and he lands the ball in the fringe: five yards short and he ends up in the water, five yards long and he faces the prospect of a hideously difficult, downhill bunker shot, with water looming behind the pin. His ball gets a perfect bounce, runs up the green, hits the pin, disappears into the cup, and rapturous celebrations ensue (never mind the fact that he double bogeys the 18th to finish in a tie for fourth!). In 2010, he describes the 17th as “one of my favourite holes on tour”, but concedes that he may be a touch “biased.” Who can blame him?

1.)    Mickelson’s shot out of the pine straw, 13th hole, 2010 Masters

When we saw the lie and the gap, we hoped he would take it on. We knew that there was a chance, given the way Mickelson plays the game; we  knew that, if he attempted it, he had the skill to pull it off, but, despite everything, we couldn’t believe that he’d go for it on the 67th hole  of a Major Championship. Perhaps this is why Mickelson is so popular: he plays the game for himself, and refuses to play the percentage. As soon as it was confirmed that the gap was big enough, we all hoped that Mickelson would reject the advice of Bones to leave it short of the stream. And how. He produces an astonishing six iron to six feet, but misses the putt, the irony being that, given his short game, if he had laid up, he probably would have made the same score. A microcosmical example of why we love Phil Mickelson.

1.)    Y.E.Yang’s astonishing approach to the 18th at the 2009 PGA Championship

I must echo the sentiments of Rob Lee, who proclaimed that Yang’s approach was “the best shot I’ve ever seen.” What an astonishing finish to an astonishing battle. Yang’s chip in at the 14th during the very same round arguably warrants a place on the list, but that was so much more  straightforward. Yang had to contend with trees, a tiny zone in which he could feasibly have landed the ball, the pressure exerted by Tiger Woods, and the pressure exerted by the prospect of being the first ever Asian to win a Major Championship. No matter. Yang hits a beautiful rescue club, almost lands it in the hole, and knocks in a ten footer to take the title. Quite remarkable.

The subjective nature of this article should hopefully stimulate discussion. Please comment if you don’t agree with the list, or think there are others that warrant a place in the top 10.

Is There a Need for a Truly Global Golf Tour?

To the avid golf fan, times are as exciting as ever.  For the neutral, the game no longer stands out. No one is dominating the game, on either side of the pond. On the PGA Tour, no one won more than twice this season. On the European Tour, only Thomas Bjorn has, sensationally, achieved that feat. Gone are the days, like the 2009 season, when Tiger Woods entered 16 tournaments and came away victorious on six occasions. Those days could well return, but we can’t cater for an eventuality that may or may not happen. The reality is that Woods is the only current golfer capable of facilitating extraordinary levels of viewership, and without his dominance, solutions must be found to carry on promoting the game and to account for its global spread. Is a global tour – comprised, by quota, of the best players on respective regional tours – the answer?

Firstly, we must assess the relative strength of golf around the world, starting with the European Tour. With the Race to Dubai still in full flight, the end of season prospects look good. Luke Donald will be returning to the Tour, the Volvo Masters at the stunning Valderrama is almost upon us, and the intrusion into the Middle East look a very shrewd economic move. This season has seen a resurgent Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke; wins for Westwood and Donald; a South African invasion, and multiple first time victors. Tom Lewis’ recent success at the Portugal Masters has led to widespread elevation of his name and status. The European Tour looks relatively strong. The combination of experienced revivals, young, first time winners, lucrative sponsorship and diversification mean that the tour is well placed.

The PGA Tour finds itself in a very interesting position. Viewing figures are down, it is struggling to market itself, and the Fed-Ex cup is still a problem point.  Having said that, those that exercise some lateral thinking will realise that it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are a number of big hitting, exceptionally talented youngsters, and the Tour has been boosted by the news that Rory McIlroy will become a full time member next year. With an exciting new schedule released last week, and the commencement of Ryder Cup points, 2012 is set to be an exciting year in the States. There also came groundbreaking news last week with regards to golf in South America. Tim Finchem, PGA Tour Commissioner, said last week: “This expansion into Latin America, when combined with what the Nationwide Tour has been able to accomplish in the region in recent years, is part of the natural progression for golf which continues to grow globally.” The idea has gained great support from players such as Jhonattan Vegas, the first Venezuelan to win on the PGA Tour and an inspiration to many in the region. He said of the plans: “It’s going to be a great thing for Latin America.”

The Japan golf tour has, and is continuing to produce, some great players, such as teenage sensation Ryo Ishikawa. The Asian Golf Tour currently boasts some relatively big names at the top end of its money list, such as Thongchai Jaidee and Jeev Milkha Singh. With players such as K.J. Choi playing an active role in promoting golf in Asia, and its recognition as a potential hotbed for future talent, prospects look good. The PGA Tour of Australia has been a stepping stone for many current PGA Tour players, and the Sunshine Tour of South Africa deserves tremendous credit for developing such a high quantity of quality golfers. In reality, these tours are never going to be anything other than feeder tours for the truly ambitious and determined, and should be recognised as such, but they have an important role to fulfill. There are many views as to the “natural progression for golf”, but could this progression involve a global tour, with qualification accounting for the strengths of various regional, feeder tours? Logistics aside, let us consider a potential model for a new tour.

The new, global tour would have room for 150 full time members, and some spaces for other entrants, based on location. The PGA Tour would provide sixty members, and the European Tour would also provide sixty; the Sunshine Tour would provide 10, as would the Asian Tour; the Japan Golf Tour and PGA Tour of Australasia would provide four a piece, leaving two spaces from the PGA Tour of Latin America. There would be a direct proportion between the location of various events and membership. For example, 40% of the tournaments would be held in Europe, and 40% in the United States of America. Based on location, qualifying events would be held for members of the corresponding Tour. Out of the sixty, for example, that qualified from the PGA Tour (they would only play the global tour), the top 40 would regain their card, and the bottom 20 would be replaced by the top 20 on the PGA Tour money list. Leaving aside, for the time being, the many, many, prospective issues, could this idea become a reality at some stage in the future? And, more importantly, should it?

There would be many positives. Having all the best players from across the globe competing week in, week out, would be a marketing and publicity godsend. Many emerging golf fans in previously unused areas of the world would be exposed to the best players on the planet. It could also have an economic impact, in terms of sponsorship and tourism. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? It may be, in theory, but it is a simply unworkable concept. Think about the longevity of various sponsorship contracts. Think about the enormous upheaval and severe logistical difficulties. More importantly, it would render majors entirely redundant. Do we want to see the best players in the world competing in the same field week in, week out, or be treated to a select few events throughout the year? There is a reason that World Cup’s in other sports are held every four years. Wholesale changes are simply not required. The game of golf is very well poised in every part of the world, and a global tour would undo so much of the good work that so many undertake to advance its credentials. Perhaps reevaluation is required in a decade or so, but in ten years, I have no doubt that golf will be as exciting as it has ever been. If regional tour directors continue their fine work in nurturing and producing talent, and new continents fully embrace the game, the days of Woods and a one man show will be long forgotten. That is, of course, unless Woods regains his best form, in which case, combined with a wide array of new talent, golf will be more popular than it has ever been.

Luke Donald: Credit to the Game and Perfect Idol for Aspiring Sportsmen

All the talk of Luke Donald’s prospective achievements on both sides of the pond has prompted me to pay homage to a man that, in my view, is the epitome of what can be achieved with application, the right attitude, and the will to improve. Those reading the previous sentence might  question my supposedly hasty use of the word achievement, given that he could easily come away from the season with no money titles; something that I view as almost irrelevant. Yes, success is measured by results, but that is only one side to the story. If Donald doesn’t win player of the year, it will be nothing short of a travesty. To achieve the level of consistency that he has achieved; to seemingly be in contention every week; to have single handedly rejected the notion that length is a prerequisite to success, is truly remarkable. As I write this, Donald leads the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. He has put all the hype to one side, and delivered, yet again. It Donald isn’t in contention, it is a surprise – how could anyone dispute such a comment? Over the past decade, how many other players could this statement genuinely apply to? Think, and then tell me if anyone else deserves player of the year. Simpson is the obvious rebuttal, and he is the only possible candidate for second, but a man who plays 18 events, makes 16 cuts, and finishes in the top 18 on 15 occasions is a man that should be honoured for his staggering achievement.

To make it digestible in quantitative terms, I present some statistics. This year, Donald has made 16 cuts and finished in the top 18 (I have chosen the top 18, as the generally accepted top 25 category is too broad for someone that hasn’t finished between 19 and 25th) on 15 occasions. So, after making the cut, he finished in the top 18 93.8% of the time. It is extremely interesting to see how this percentage compares with those that won (or are leading) the money list, going back to 2005:

2011 – Webb Simpson – 17/22 (top 18’s/cuts made) – 77%

2010 – Matt Kuchar – 18/26 – 72%

2009 – Tiger Woods – 16/16 – 100%

2008 – Vijay Singh – 13/23 – 57%

2007 – Tiger Woods – 14/16 – 88%

2006 – Tiger Woods – 12/14 – 86%

2005 – Tiger Woods – 16/19 – 84%

2011 – Luke Donald – 15/16 – 94%

What a phenomenal performance from Donald. Tiger Woods is the only one with a higher percentage, coming in 2009, and in a nice piece of symmetry, arguably the only one, aside from Donald, that fits into the aforementioned category: if he isn’t in contention, it’s a surprise.

Given performance and statistics on the PGA Tour, it would be easy to forget that Donald is truly an international golfer, and, if you chose to measure success by victory, then he has been more successful on the European Tour this season. A stunning first-round 64 at a lengthened Wentworth led to a play-off victory over Lee Westwood at the BMW Championship, and he strolled to victory at the Barclays Scottish Open.  Only a select few have mastered the skill of playing on both tours in the same season. Donald has a great chance to become the first player to win both money lists. This season, no one has come close to achieving what Donald has.

Such achievements are more impressive given Donald’s start to life on tour. He didn’t burst on to the scene like so many before (and after) him. Indeed, his first victory on the PGA Tour came three years after his first appearance. He is a testament to hard work and the desire to improve yourself; to want to be the best. Natural talent means nothing if you don’t have the work ethic to match. Look at players like Pat Perez. When Woods came into the equation, he was immediately touted as a future world number one. After the end of the 2002 season, who would have predicted the same for Donald? He has made himself the best, and no one has ever deserved to be world number one more than the man from Beaconsfield.

Donald’s attitude is also exemplary. He plays the game as it is meant to be played, and practices as if his life depended upon it. He is always decent and well mannered, even when continually asked questions that must be extremely irksome to him. Questions about his length, for example. As I remember it, Donald had no trouble reaching the 7th at the TPC Boston in two shots and knocking in a putt for eagle, the same Donald who won on the longest course on tour at the Accenture World Matchplay. Donald is adaptable, and has the game for any conditions. He has continually challenged himself to be as good as he possibly can. This is the kind of role-model we need in modern sport; someone who displays genuine humility and recognises the link between what people see on television and how they act. So much disrespect towards officials in other sports stems from this fundamental problem. Would you find Donald jamming his wedge into the fairway, as Jason Day did at the Deutsche Bank? Not a chance. Modern sport is in dire need of more professionals that are genuine ambassadors for the game they play, and who conduct themselves as such.

Preview: The Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic

As Justin Rose stated earlier on in the week, via Twitter: “Disney event is pretty interesting. Intense at top and bottom end of money list, and super chilled for everyone in between!” How James Driscoll, the man occupying the treacherous yet coveted 125th position on the money list, wishes he was one of those settling for stress free mediocrity. Many twists and turns lie ahead, but we are oh so close to finding out who will be crowned money leader, and who will be displaced from the top 125 in what is set to be an intense, nerve-jangling end to the season.

My Predictions:

Money list winner:

We all know what a gritty, talented performed Luke Donald is, but I just can’t see him finishing high enough this week. He must be exhausted after a physically and emotionally taxing season, not to mention the fact that he wasn’t even scheduled to compete in this event. Donald is questionable under immense pressure, something that he has piled upon himself by continually stressing his desire to win both the PGA and European Tour money lists. I dearly hope that I am proved wrong, and that Donald takes the tournament and the money list title, but I think we will see him run out of steam and scrape a top-25 finish, without ever really being in contention. Donald has to finish in no worse than a two way tie for third, and that is before we take into account any money that Simpson might make. With so many guys under next to no pressure, expect to see some low scoring, and expect to see Donald left in their wake.

Tournament Winner:

For me, Justin Rose looks a great shout for the title. He has a month off to reflect on another solid season. He has been driving the ball well all year and is 10th in greens in regulation. If he finds some form on the greens, and makes as many putts from inside ten feet as he did at Cog Hill, then maybe he will go one better than the 60 he shot at Palm in 2006! Put this together with his tremendous record at Disney (two fourth and one third place finish) and we have ourselves a winner! I’ll be having a tenner on Rose, for sure.

To Enter Top 125:

I fancy Cabrera, Casey, Mayfair and Horschel to sneak in to the top 125. Mayfair, although winning last season’s Q-School, will be desperate to avoid the trip to PGA West in November. Cabrera found some form last week, and with his Masters exemption, expect him to be in contention and to move comfortably into the top 125. Casey is far too good a player to lose his card, and I expect him to rally, especially after finding some form at the frys.com. Finally, Horschel, who has had a decent run of events, was in good form last week, and I expect him to put his final round blip behind him and put in a strong performance.

To Drop out of Top 125:

Obviously trying to predict this category is nigh on impossible, as no one can predict how certain players will respond to enormous pressure. Those that normally struggle under pressure may find that extra grit, and those that consider themselves as calm and level headed may find that things have changed. If I had to chose four players to drop out, they would be: Trahan, Gates, Driscoll and Thatcher.

No one want to see anyone lose their playing privileges, but those players that end up in the unenviable position between 125th and 150th only need to look at Bud Cauley and Chez Reavie to find some inspiration. To those that finish outside the top 150: find something at Q-School.

In an event that has so many sub-plots, it will be fascinating to see how they all play out. Best of luck to those involved, and I hope everyone at home enjoys the coverage as much as I am going to.

Is Golf More or Less Interesting Than it was 5 Years Ago?

I recently read an interesting article: ‘Why Parity is Bad For Golf’ on www.thesandtrap.com. In short, it argued that golf nowadays is suffering because there is a multitude of above average, faceless golfers, instead of one (or more) global superstar who is responsible for the vast majority of viewership. It argued that with no Tiger dominance, interest in golf is relapsing, and that it will continue to do so unless he, or someone with his reincarnate skill or iconic status, makes golf interesting again.

This is a view that has also been touted elsewhere, and I have to say that I am baffled that so many people share this nonsensical opinion. Those that do have clearly failed to understand that Tiger Woods in an anomaly, and that his absence has allowed some extremely promising youngsters to come onto the scene and establish themselves; that some of these youngsters have the potential to be the next Tiger Woods; that it takes more than one golfer to make a tournament exciting; that golf is in a transitional period. Yes, Woods is the most talented golfer of all time, and as such, a joy to watch. It is no surprise that viewership has decreased dramatically since the start of his physical and mental torment. Does decreased viewership suggest that golf has become less interesting, or that a number of casual spectators drawn in by Woods’ genius have subsequently stopped following the sport? There is an enormous wealth of relatively new talent on Tour, and many players within that category have the potential to turn into all time greats, but we have to accept that it is going to take some time. At least, without Tiger, the coverage is focused on those new, exciting players, and those in contention. Surely a true golf fan would agree that showing Tiger’s every shot on a Sunday when he is nowhere near the lead is ridiculous, and that it helps facilitate the view that one man is bigger than the sport he plays. Those that will only tune in to watch Tiger are truly ignorant, and perhaps if they took the time to look around, they would see that the next decade has the potential to be the most exciting in the history of golf.

Part of the problem is that there are so many great players around that, by extension, it is extremely hard to stand out from the crowd. This is further emphasised by technical and physical developments. New equipment, coupled with increased athleticism and strength of golfers, means that ball is travelling further than ever before. This clearly makes for more exciting golf, by either setting up more birdie opportunities or more escape shots from the rough, but isn’t viewed as such. Why? Because being able to hit the ball a mile is a common trait. It’s a psychological issue. Lots have the capacity to drive the ball 350 yards, so it isn’t that exciting, even though it would be if only one, or a select few, were able to hit it that far. Woods burst on to the scene and stood out from the crowd, not only in driving distance but in his mastery of all aspects of the game. In 2005, for example, he was second in driving distance, sixth in GIR and eighth in strokes gained – putting: a recipe for low scoring. This made for fantastic viewing, but is it not also fantastic to watch Mickleson taking on ridiculous shots, as he did at the 13th in the 2010 Masters, or to see Jason Day scrambling for his life at, seemingly, every big tournament?

‘Why Parity is Bad for Golf’ also suggests that what we need to see is someone like Woods, who completely dominates most aspects of the game. Is that person not Luke Donald? Granted, Donald hasn’t won a major, but his rise to number one is arguably as impressive as Woods’, given the gap in natural talent between the two. Thus far this season, Donald is first in top 10s, first in scoring average, second in strokes gained – putting, eighth in scrambling and fourth in birdie average. Donald is a joy to watch, but for a different reason. Perhaps Donald’s remarkable achievement doesn’t receive as much press because he isn’t from the US, and perhaps the Americans are having difficulty accepting that they are no longer the dominant force in world golf. Do pride and bitterness come into the equation, and help account for a decreased interest? Fewer Americans may be watching the PGA Tour, but think about future prospects and viewing figures from places such as Venezuela and Columbia, as golfers such as Camilo Villegas and Jhonnatan Vegas fly the flag for the promotion of the sport.

Either way, PGA Tour viewing figures are down: “without a handful of bonafide stars heading up the marketing, the PGA Tour’s product looks incomplete.” What a load of nonsense. I would argue that it is stronger than ever. Woods is still very much in the picture, and it would take an extremely brave person to claim that he will never be back to his best. The young guns are rising in stature every week. Imagine the excitement of Woods, McIlroy and Fowler battling it out down the stretch at the 2012 Masters, a scenario that is entirely possible. Woods and Mickleson are arguably the only superstars in world golf, but there is a group of easily ten golfers that could elevate themselves to that status in the near future. Who wants to see Tiger dominate every event? I certainly don’t. I want to see people like Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel winning majors.  I want to see the likes of Johnson and Ishikawa putting themselves in contention. Jason Dufner in a battle with Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA may not be what the neutral wanted, but it can’t be denied that it was a thrilling finish. Excitement has been, and will always continue to be, intrinsically linked with golf. The general public just have to want to see it, and have to accept that Woods isn’t the only shining beacon coming out of an otherwise dull sport. Officials have to realise that there is plentiful material for new marketing campaigns and features. The golfing world of today, where players (Bubba Watson) can reach the 16th at Firestone with a driver and an iron, is one that is extraordinarily promotable, and if some people still can’t see past golf without Tiger Woods, then they are the type of people that we don’t want following this wonderful sport.

The Pace of Play Debate: Any Prospect of a Concrete Resolution?

Speed of play has been one of the most discussed topics in world golf over the last decade. In 2002, when Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen were embroiled in the race for the European Tour money list title, the latter labelled the former ‘the slowest player on tour.’ Matters came to a head again in 2005, when Ben Crane, arguably the slowest on tour, was left standing over his approach on the 17th hole at the Booz Allen Classic by an enraged Rory Sabbatini. Whilst Sabbatini’s etiquette was rightly called into question, Crane needed to, and honourably did, shield some of the blame, affirming that “I’m doing all I can, I need to work on picking up the pace, and I understand that.” Unfortunately, there is still a large discrepancy between his words and his actions. Don’t worry, though: “I’m trying… it’s just going to take a little more time (2011).” Evidently, six years hasn’t been enough to make a fundamental change. At some stage in the near future, debate has to transfer to policy, because slow play is attracting negative press. Even the quickest players on tour recognise a difference in styles, and tolerate those that take a little more time over their shots, but where do we draw the line? Putting an offending group on the clock, and not accounting for variations within that group, is unjust, and handing out meagre fines to offenders is wholly inadequate, given the enormous prize pools on offer week in, week out.

Slow play is something that permeates every level of the game, from professional golf to club golf. Every golfer out there has, at some stage or another, been affected by slow play, whether it be someone (not everyone!) in the group ahead, or a playing partner. It is horribly tedious, affects our mental attitude, and, by extension, our own play. Some would argue that it is the individual’s responsibility to be in stringent control of his or her emotions, but this introduces another side to the debate. Golf is a game that relies on good relationships and a devout adherence to etiquette, and etiquette encompasses making sure the way you conduct yourself doesn’t adversely affect others. To say that golfers should be entirely focused on their own game is to deny that one player’s game impacts upon others in the group, and we all know what an erroneous view that is. How often do golfers allude to feeding off each other’s positive momentum? Being exposed to positives unfortunately means being exposed to negatives, and negatives arise when players with contrasting views on how to play the game are grouped together (Crane and Sabbatini.) To combat this, the various Tours need to collaborate and come up with solutions and punishments that are religiously applied.

The first thing that needs to be done is to abolish the hopelessly antiquated system of monetary punishments. Lee Trevino, in an interview with www.pgatour.com, raised some very interesting points, namely the need to bring back a two stroke penalty. What’s more, the implementation of stroke penalties is, in itself, an indirect fine. Ludicrously, there is provision for awarding a one stroke penalty, but we have to go back to 1992 to see its last implementation. The problem is that, whilst it is widely recognised as an issue, no official is prepared to put their neck on the line, and perhaps that comes down to different definitions of what constitutes slow play. On the PGA of America website, in its section on golfing etiquette, it states that no more than 45 seconds should be taken over any shot. When we cross reference this information with a piece by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, where various players were timed, we start to see why problems are not subsiding. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, only one player out of those measured took longer, on average, than 45 seconds: Kevin Na. This surely suggests that the parameters of slow play need to be re-evaluated. If only one player is taking longer than the allotted time, and if he is only doing so on the putting green, then it is no
surprise that we haven’t seen a shot penalty awarded in nearly 20 years. If only one player is taking longer than the allotted time, and the general
consensus is that there is a massive issue with slow play in golf, isn’t it obvious that the allotted time for a shot needs to be modified? Modification is essential, but ultimately means nothing if a concrete penalty isn’t agreed upon and adhered to.

So, what is the solution? Part of the problem is that those responsible don’t see slow play as an issue, and who can blame them, given the lack of new legislation from above. When Ben Crane makes comments such as “I know there is something I have to change in my life… what are you going to change, your attitude?”, it suggests that talk of speeding up is only for the cameras. There simply hasn’t been enough pressure to make him play quicker. General disgruntlement isn’t going to facilitate change. Penalty shots will.

Results from the Arnold Palmer Invitational present a starting point. From the fairway, the quickest player was Rickie Fowler at 13.9 seconds. The slowest was Sergio Garcia at 41.4 seconds. On the green, Fowler took an average of 12.3 seconds over each putt, and Kevin Na, shockingly, took 47.6 seconds. (Is it not a sign that the two quickest putters were Fowler and McDowell?!) Fowler may be extremely quick, but by that logic, Na is extremely slow. Which is more damaging? For putting, the average between the two is 29.95 seconds. This clearly isn’t a fair limit for those on the slower side of average. So, if we average this figure with Na’s time, we get 38.775 seconds. Following the same methodology with shots from the fairway, the figure is 34.45 seconds. There you have it: set the limit for putting at 39 seconds, and the limit from the fairway at 35 seconds. Anyone taking longer is liable for a 2 shot penalty. It is empirically fair and logically sound. Reassess every year. Problems solved.