One return ticket to Scotland, please
The Open is little more than a fortnight away, and it once again presents an opportunity for the pretentious members of the R & A to puff out their chests and bask in the glory of “their” major.
Yet the Open, although not officially, is as much the flagship event for the European Tour as it is for the R & A. The other three majors all take place in the United States, and the Open is thus a massive opportunity for European players to showcase themselves on their own patch.
But the 2013 edition comes at a time when the European Tour finds itself in its greatest state of peril since its inception. Well, certainly when compared to its American counterpart anyway.
The “Miracle at Medinah” continued an unprecedented run of dominance enjoyed by the Europeans in the Ryder Cup, which has seen them win seven of the last nine matches. However, it is no longer a genuine clash of the European and PGA Tours.
Of Jose Maria Olazabal’s 12 charges, just two players – Paul Lawrie and Francesco Molinari – are now full-time members of the European Tour. Martin Kaymer and Nicolas Colsaerts were the latest high-profile names to abandon the European Tour, and the mass exodus is indicative of the worrying gulf emerging between the two Tours.
So what is it that makes departing their homelands and heading west so attractive to the majority of professionals? Naturally, money is a big factor. Much of Europe finds itself drowning in recession, and the financial backing for regular events has been lost.
A record four events were lost in the 2012 season, and remaining events are struggling to retain their prize funds. Smaller purses make events less attractive to the world’s best players, and it has a horrible snowball effect.
Weaker fields generally result in poorer turnouts and viewer interest. The poorer the turnout, the less likely deep-pocketed companies are to lend their backing. The less backing there is, the lower the prize fund. The lower the prize fund, the weaker the field. The weaker the field, the less Official World Golf Ranking points.
A pretty vicious circle huh?
The Sunshine Tour now boasts six co-sanctioned events with the European Tour – more than any other country. It is a wonderful reflection on the strength of South African golf, and the good work done by the likes of Selwyn Nathan and everyone connected to the Sunshine Tour.
But it is also an indictment on the European Tour’s desperation to find alternative venues for events; with countries in mainland Europe no longer able to oblige. In fact, less than half of European Tour events now take place on the continent itself.
The Middle and Far East have become increasingly regular hosts as their outrageously wealthy benefactors are able to bankroll the events sufficiently to attract the world’s top players.
The European Tour is no longer stretching itself far and wide to “globalise” itself. It isn’t a marketing campaign - merely an attempt to chase the dollar.
The problem with this is that it increases the level of travel required for full time members, and it becomes far less appealing to top players. World number three Luke Donald, who has lived in America since college, believes this is where the PGA Tour holds a significant advantage.
“Geographically wise the PGA Tour is easier,” said Donald. “You’re not flying country to country, the tournaments are a lot closer together and you can travel with your family. It’s a very attractive tour. I’m sure the European Tour are watchful about these guys leaving, but there’s probably not much they can do.”
Even the European Tour’s “annexation” of the East is under threat, as the WGC-HSBC Champions Tournament in Shenzhen and the CIMB Classic in Malaysia have become official PGA Tour events. Rumour has it there are more to follow too.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. The inaugural “Final Series” in the 2013 is a fine (and lucrative) addition to the 2013 Race to Dubai. Furthermore, it is scheduled to begin after the FedExCup, thus accommodating those top players who have appeared in more than the minimum of 13 European Tour events during the season.
Unlike the PGA Tour, the European Tour also doesn’t prohibit sponsors coughing up appearance fees, and this is a useful weapon for attracting top players. Without these appearance fees, it seems safe to assume the likes of Tiger Woods would not be playing in events like the Turkish Airlines Open.
The PGA Tour and the European Tour may not be direct adversaries, but comparisons are inevitable. And right now, the weakening European Tour is suffering a worrying drain of talent.
After all, many of the European stars arriving at Muirfield for this year’s Open will need to cross the Atlantic to do so. And likely head straight back in the other direction as soon after as possible.