Game caught in the rough; The European Tour

Golf in Europe is suffering growing pains as leading players question its direction. Paul Trow examines the issues
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The Independent Online
Tour thoughts by Seve Ballesteros

It always seems to happen. Just when the PGA European Tour begins to feel pleased with itself, something unexpectedly spiky appears and punctures the euphoria.

On the face of it, the last year has been a great success for professional golf on this side of the Atlantic. It had the best possible launchpad, of course, with that historic and heroic Ryder Cup triumph at Oak Hill in Uncle Sam's backyard 12 months ago followed by Nick Faldo's third Masters victory at Augusta in April.

Inevitably, the game took a back seat during a summer dominated by Euro 96 and the Olympics - perhaps first-time (American) winners in the other three majors didn't help - but all in all things were running pretty smoothly. Then along came Collingtree Park, a young course designed by Johnny Miller beside an upmarket housing estate on the outskirts of Northampton, and venue of the One 2 One British Masters.

Unusually, the tournament, one of the more prestigious on Tour, finished on a Saturday to accommodate Sky's busy sports schedule last Sunday. But even more unusual was the acute embarrassment of watching the players grapple for four days with greens (or greys as one writer described them) which were rougher than the nearby hard shoulder on the M1. Cue much howling from superstars and journeymen as three-foot putts bobbled manically in every direction but the one in which they were aimed.

Leaving aside the possibility that the course's preparation was not vetted as rigorously as it might have been, what made official faces go really red was the fact that Collingtree Park is jointly owned by the Tour itself and the event's promoters, International Management Group.

As usual, the leading players on site - Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie - were soon on the record. Following the ludicrously easy set-up at Nippenburg (another joint Tour and IMG layout) for the previous week's Volvo German Open, Ballesteros, who will captain Europe in their Ryder Cup defence next year, feared for the quality of his team at Valderrama. "If we keep playing in these conditions I will not get the best 12 players in Europe," he said.

Woosnam, who won his fourth title of the year at Nippenburg with 20 under par after 54 holes, dubbed Collingtree's greens the worst he had ever played on. And Montgomerie publicly apologised to the sponsors, who were in their first of three years with the event. In the wake of this hullabaloo, Ken Schofield, the Tour's executive director, reacted as any politician who had been in his job for 21 years would - he launched an inquiry.

The Tour reached new heights last winter when Schofield unveiled a packed tournament schedule for 1996 with prize money which would exceed pounds 30m, an increase of around 16 per cent. A far cry indeed from last week when, it was revealed, he had written apologetically to each competitor who played at Collingtree describing the occasion as "the low ebb in my experience" and offering a free entry to a future tournament of his choice.

Intriguingly, though, One 2 One are quite relaxed about the adverse comment which the tournament attracted. Anna Cloke, the company's spokeswoman, said: "From our perception, the event was a great success. Admittedly, there is a bit of ground to make up regarding the course but we will be sitting down with the Tour soon to discuss such details as whether we should go somewhere else next year."

As the tournament was only in its second year at Collingtree, one neighbouring candidate of proven stature presents itself as an obvious alternative venue. Namely, Woburn. Hang on a second, you might ask, haven't we been there before? Twelve times, between 1979 and 1994. The event only left Woburn for Collingtree when no replacement sponsor could be found for Dunhill in time for last year's event. But Woburn will not stage the Weetabix Women's Open for the next two years, so a return by the British Masters is a valid possibility.

No doubt the Collingtree furore will blow over and all the right noises will be made about everyone learning a lesson for the future. But the fall-out has revived a few questions. Does the Tour, for instance, really have sufficient expertise and capital to own and develop its own courses? And how long will sponsors be prepared to shell out over pounds 1m to back tournaments which attract only satellite TV audiences, notwithstanding Schofield's claim that Sky is received "in more homes than there are golfers in the United Kingdom"? And with so much coverage on Sky, including the next two Ryder Cups, is golf visible enough on terrestrial TV to enable it to keep growing (bearing in mind the sale of golf magazines and the length of club membership waiting lists have both dropped over the last two years)? How long, also, can journeymen pros afford to play in early-season "European" tournaments in exotic locations like Singapore and Australia?

Perhaps the most important issue is how the Tour is going to replace the seven pillars on which the blue-chip edifice of the Eighties and early Nineties boom years was built? While Woosnam is back to form this year, at 38 he cannot have too many great seasons left in him; Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer are not quite the players they were; Jose Maria Olazabal has missed a whole year through injury; and Faldo is now only an occasional visitor to Europe.

Which leaves Montgomerie, Europe's No 1 since 1993 and desperate to shed that best-player- yet-to-win-a-major tag along with the three stone he lost last winter. Broad though his shoulders are, he cannot carry the Tour on his own, especially as his putting problems may yet lead him to emulate Faldo and play more tournaments in the United States. Alas, too many bright prospects in recent years have flickered briefly only to fizzle out when seemingly set for great things. There were 12 first-time winners last year, and another dozen have chalked up a maiden victory this season, but how many will still be winning in 10 years' time?

Schofield's dream of the 100th man on the money list earning pounds 100,000 a year is not far away and the Tour has certainly never been stronger in depth, but where is the next Faldo or Ballesteros? In effect, the crunch time could be 1999 when the current deal expires with the Tour's overall sponsors, Volvo, who by then will have pumped in more than pounds 50m over 12 years.

Last week, the US tour welcomed 20-year-old Tiger Woods into their midst. The journeymen pros showed no envy towards the rookie over his $40m, five- year endorsement contract with Nike because they know the superstar vacuum in American golf has been filled for the foreseeable future.

But contrast this with the churlish response by some European Tour members to Gordon Sherry who last year outshone Woods at the Walker Cup, the Open and the Scottish Open. Since he turned pro, the young Scot has experienced a few awkward moments. Seasoned players have muttered about him having a lot to learn and his game has suffered. He may be a little green, but at least that's an improvement on Collingtree Park.

Sept 1992: "A long schedule will hurt the top players. We will become just like the Americans - a tour without stars."

Sept 1994: "It looks like it's going to be the [Mark] McCormack Tour very soon instead of our tour. It looks like he owns it."

Oct 1994: "There is no point in calling it a European Tour. They might as well call it the world tour. They should have only 30 events and have them just in Europe."

Oct 1995: "I have always said it's impossible to do both jobs [captain and play in the Ryder Cup]. I couldn't be a playing captain."

Feb 1996: "If I felt my game was good and that it would help the team I would do it [captain and play in the Ryder Cup]."

31 Aug 1996: "I want to see courses set up tougher and in better condition. The problem is ours [the players]. We must sit down, select the committee and say how we want the tour to be run. When we complain in little groups in bars, cafeterias and locker-rooms, nothing happens. I have fought by myself many times already, but maybe we'll all meet soon."

31 Aug 1996: "We'll end up with 54 tournaments every year, but very cheap ones. As I've said many times, we need quality not quantity."