Are the WGCs Good for Golf?

The line separating bravery from facepalm-inducing idiocy is a fine one indeed.

Precisely which side of that hazy boundary I’m currently standing is open to some debate, but let it be said – right now, at the outset – that certain unfortunate particulars relating to this column haven’t escaped my notice.

Here I am attempting to argue the case against the World Golf Championships, while a mere mouseclick away, practically leaping from a crowded internet browser, is the WGC-Cadillac Championship’s leaderboard.

Day 3 is just underway, but barring a catastrophic intervention of some sort – a few more exploding sprinkler heads, perhaps? a mass food poisoning? – it will almost certainly end much as it began: with nearly a dozen major champions in varying states of contention. Their order will almost certainly change – reshuffles, after all, are what Moving Day is all about – but strength-in-depth, an overwhelming weight of stellar names and reputations, looks set to carry its third day running.

What’s more, these stars are ranked, a couple of exceptions aside, according to their capacity to send hearts a’flutter. Woods, McDowell, Mickelson, Watson, Schwartzel… it goes on and on, the perfectly balanced cast of a PGA Tour blockbuster.

Could I have picked a less-opportune moment to seize the soapbox, megaphone in hand? Unlikely.

I say this not because a television schedule crammed with good play, leavened with dashes of glamour here and there is usually pleasing enough a proposition to keep all naysaying at arm’s length – which it is, by the way – but because weekends like this, when the stars quite literally align, were what the WGCs were always meant to be about. 

Even in its earliest form, as the half-baked brainchild of serial runner-up Greg Norman, the idea of a million-dollar playground for the world’s best players, the cream of its major tours, was always about giving the sofa-bound spectator exactly what he wanted. Narrow fields with correspondingly narrow odds of anonymous journeymen shambling off with the spoils at week’s end; strong personalities for all four days, guaranteed: it all adds up to big excitement and even bigger advertising revenues. Everyone wins.

So why criticise a format that seems to be fulfilling its brief so efficiently?

Well, primarily because that last little bit, about everyone winning, isn’t strictly accurate. Sure, competitors make a financial gain ($8.75 million goes an awful long way, you know, divided among a limited field); fans like what they see, by and large; and the all-important boardroom axis of tournament organisers and corporate sponsors goes home happy, each partner’s immediate interests having been met.

The problem lies elsewhere. Quite literally, in fact. Right now it’s in Puerto Rico. And next week, it’ll be in India for the Avantha Masters.

You see, while Tiger, Phil and a rag-tag crew of garishly clad millionaires has its way with the jewel in Donald Trump’s Miami portfolio, the less privileged denizens of both the PGA and European Tours are confronting a far less glamorous reality. The the fact of this separation isn’t necessarily a problem – haven’t the best players earned the right to compete in the richest tournaments? – but its terms are poisonous.

In India next week, for example, upwards of a hundred journeymen and assorted lesser lights of the European Tour will compete for a prize fund worth a total of €1.8 million, or considerably less than double what the winner of the Cadillac Championship took home to Jupiter Island. To look at it another way: a last place finish in Florida for, say, Jamie Donaldson or Paul Lawrie is worth more, arguments for sightseeing aside, than four days of fairly exceptional play on the Asian subcontinent.

Clearly, the financial gulf between the two classes, tournament golf’s haves and have-nots, is enormous. Mind you, the same could be said of that between the European and Challenge Tours, and you don’t hear anyone complaining about it. The difference here – and it’s crucial – is that both are expected to share the same playing field. Money pocketed in Florida, even by default, counts towards the same rankings and orders of merit as that scrapped for in Puerto Rico or India.

The grotesque scale of the imbalance means its possible for players to cruise the more lucrative tournaments on the calendar, playing unspectacular golf all the while, without ever really risking a return to the pack. Easy money and even easier world ranking points conspire to ensure that a brief burst in form, if timed correctly, can go very far indeed.

Conversely, a member of the underclass can perform consistently throughout the season, season on season, without ever really building the sort of momentum that earns a courtesy car or berth on the private jet. It takes something extra special, produced on one of the few weeks these two worlds share the same leaderboard, to print a golden ticket.

If there was a democratic principle at work, if the exchange of players between the two classes was regulated or enshrined within a framework that didn’t place such a premium on aristocratic privilege, there’d be no complaint to make. But instead we’ve decided to persist in a charade, to call by two names what are clearly three separate bodies and ignore all the awkward questions that raises. The World Tour proposed by Norman all those years ago was rejected outright, and with good reason, but we’re living with a version of it now, none the wiser for its dilution.

Tournaments like Doral draw the eye, alright; in fact, they’re pretty much irresistable. But they’re exhibitions more than they are tournaments – who loses, exactly? – and as such, make for awkward addititions to what was once a well-balanced hierarchy.

You won’t catch either fans or players complaining, but elite golf has never been quite so elitist.

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