PGA Tour Is Losing Out To Europe

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - November 17, 2010
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Tiger Woods: Dubai’s calling

Rory McIlroy’s announcement that he is relinquishing his PGA tour card was not the most shocking bit of news to hit Ponte Vedra Beach, home of the PGA Tour, in recent memory. But it has the potential to lead to something damaging.

The world’s ninth-ranked golfer will join No. 1 Lee Westwood and No. 3 Martin Kaymer among Europeans who have determined PGA membership is no longer a must-have. They are not the first. World Golf Hall of Famer Seve Ballesteros turned his back on the PGA mid-career, playing almost entirely in Europe, and Colin Montgomerie has never had a card, though no one outside of Europe has missed the eight-time Order of Merit winner.

McIlroy told British newspapers he became less interested in playing in the U.S., especially during the FedEx Cup playoffs this year. The travel, separation from his girlfriend and his lack of a U.S. base also were important factors.

His decision does not mean he’ll be a no-show on U.S. soil, but it does further the idea that life exists beyond the PGA Tour, and that’s unsettling for the tour that markets itself as the world’s best.

The Northern Irishman has qualified for all four majors and will appear in perhaps 12 PGAevents next year, but he won’t be eligible for the Fedex Cup.

For decades, the PGA’s European or Asian counterparts offered little in the way of competition. But the sport’s global growth has begun to slowly shift the game away from its American-centric focus to one that makes it a true international sport. Nowhere has this change been greater than in Asia and the Middle East, where the number of tournaments - and most importantly the purses - have exploded. The European Tour even oneupped the PGAwith its Race to Dubai, which, before the international economic melt-down, offered golf’s biggest purse and had lured big-name players such as Anthony Kim, Phil

Mickelson and Camilo Villegas. Tiger Woods remains the ultimate target of the financiers in many of these locations. With his course design work in Dubai, which is using golf as a way to spread its global brand as a place for business and luxury tourism, more Tiger appearances in the region are likely. And that rightly terrifies the PGA.

The PGA currently requires its members to play a minimum 15 events each year. Add to this the international events that allow appearance fees or that are tied to a golfer’s business interests, not to mention the President’s Cup and Ryder Cup, and tour stops that used to be major draws, such as the HP Byron Nelson Championship, are suddenly regulated to second-tier status that struggle with ticket sales and TV ratings. PGA commissioner Tim Finchem would like his players to open their schedules to include these events, but he’s not about to pressure the membership too much because of his fear that its top players will follow the European example. He’s got to play his cards carefully. The lower-tier players will stay because the money is good and prestige is high, but that’s not enough. The tour’s financial success depends almost entirely on a small handful of players who in recent years have grown more bold in controlling their own interests.

It benefits the future of the tour to have its big names play in as many U.S.-based tournaments as possible, but that is going to become more rare as the top guys press for ever more autonomy.

McIlroy didn’t break open the door to independence, but his decision further enhances the validity of looking out for No. 1. And it’s only going to get worse unless the PGA reduces its participation requirements.


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