Golf: New look as tour rakes in big money

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVER SINCE just eight professionals gathered at Prestwick in October 1860, the concept of the best players in the game playing against each other to decide a worthy champion has been a familiar one in golf. But so has tradition, and though the 128th staging of the Open Championship, which returns to Carnoustie for the first time in 24 years, will remain the centrepiece of the 1999 season, change is in the air.

The European Tour, which gets under way in Johannesburg today with the South African PGA Championship, has a new look in two ways. Firstly, the official currency from now on will be the euro, with a conversion to pounds sterling set for the season at today's exchange rate. For each Briton who might be suspicious of the change, there is a Bernhard Langer who expected nothing less.

Secondly, there is the introduction of a new level of tournaments all with a first prize of $1m, or pounds 630,000 or 880,000 euros: big money in anyone's currency. Three World Championship events have been introduced to cater for the players' requests for more opportunities for the best to meet the best, a concept thoroughly endorsed by sponsors and television.

If the idea is an old one, and was achieved on the links of Scotland until the turn of the century and on the fairways of the US Tour for most of the 1900s, recently only the four major championships have seen a gathering of the world's best players.

The development of the game outside of the States, with Europe becoming a force in the Ryder Cup and, last month, the International team defeating the Americans in the Presidents Cup, finally has brought a recognition from the Americans that the game is going global.

If the feeling is that their idea of the best meeting the best is fine as long as it is on US soil, with two of the new events in the States, then the third, the American Express World Championship, which will decide the US money list as well as the European Order of Merit, will be played at Valderrama in November.

It was Greg Norman who sparked the tours from around the world to come together in unusual co-operation when he proposed a World Tour of elite events in 1994. Where Norman missed the point is that golf does not need any more 30-man events with no half-way cut to concentrate the mind. All that really needs to happen is for other events to follow the lead of the US Players' Championship in making sure the top 50 or more on the world rankings are among a full-field entry.

One of the new events falls into Norman's trap, the NEC World Invitational bringing together Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players at Firestone, the home of the now defunct World Series. Greg Turner, the New Zealander, will play in the event because he was picked as a wild card for the International Presidents Cup team but does not believe he should be. "I'm in the tournament as a player ranked 70th in the world when others, who are more deserving, are missing out," he said.

"At a time when the difference between being 30th in the world and 130th is smaller than it's ever been, we are looking at creating this elitist group where the fields are limited," Turner added.

Each event, however, has specific qualification criteria allowing players to emerge from the European or other tours to work their way up the ladder. Much the most eagerly anticipated of the new events is the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship, which will feature the world's top 64 in straight head-to-head action, a concept that has not existed since the USPGA went to strokeplay in 1958.

The qualification for the event has added an impetus to the start of the season. Nick Faldo (57th), Per-Ulrik Johansson (63rd), Robert Karlsson (67th) and Andrew Coltart (69th) are among those tried to make sure of a place at La Costa next month. Due to poor results at the start of last season, Karlsson has been told he can improve his world ranking points average by sitting at home for the next six weeks. Whether it will be enough is another question and the Swede is not taking the chance.

Faldo is showing signs of trying to make the team on merit. The Ryder Cup will be played in September at the Country Club of Brookline, where Faldo lost the US Open in a play-off to Curtis Strange in 1988. "It is one of the great sporting events," Faldo said of the Ryder Cup. "You want to be there."

The 41-year-old six-times major winner is taking advantage of the absence of Colin Montgomerie (resting), Darren Clarke (fitness training) and Lee Westwood (honeymoon) by teeing up at Houghton today. "Step one is to get back to winning, step two is to get back to winning majors and if you are doing that you'll get in the Ryder Cup," he said.

Winning the World Cup with England and finishing fourth in the Australian Open has rekindled his enthusiasm. "I'm as keen as mustard. You hate being down where I am when you have been where I have been. But I just keep believing that after everything I've been through I'll be a better player than ever before. That's the scary thing for everyone else. My trump card now is experience."

With the European Order of Merit now including the US Open and USPGA as well as the three World Championship events, the chances of a player coming out of the pack, as Ronan Rafferty did in 1989, to win the title have decreased. Equally, it will now reflect performances by Europeans in the world's biggest tournaments. Expect another Montgomerie, Clarke, Westwood shoot out.

As for Justin Rose, the 18-year-old is taking up the first of what should be many invitations in Johannesburg this week. Quite how many he receives will be up to how he performs. The safety net of the Challenge tour remains but he may find himself overtaken by Sergio Garcia, who is expected to turn professional after the US Masters.

EUROPEAN TOUR SCHEDULE

JANUARY

14-17 Alfred Dunhill South African PGA, Houghton, Johannesburg

21-24 South African Open, Stellenbosch

28-31 Heineken Classic, The Vines, Perth, Australia

FEBRUARY

4-7 Benson and Hedges Malaysian Open, Kuala Lumpur

11-14 Dubai Desert Classic, Dubai Creek

17-20 Qatar Masters, Doha, Qatar

24-28 World Golf Championship Andersen Consulting Match Play, La Costa, California

MARCH

4-7 Portuguese Algarve Open, venue to be announced

11-14 Turespana Masters, venue tba

18-21 Moroccan Open, Royal Agadir

25-28 Madeira Island Open, Santo da Serra

APRIL

8-11 US MASTERS, Augusta, Georgia

22-25 Peugeot Spanish Open, venue tba

29-2 May Fiat and Fila Italian Open, Circolo, Turin

MAY

6-9 French Open, venue tba

13-16 Benson and Hedges International, The Oxfordshire

21-24 Deutsche Bank-SAP Open TPC of Europe, St Leon Rot, Heidelburg

28-31 Volvo PGA Championship, Wentworth, Surrey

JUNE

3-6 English Open, tba

10-13 German Open, Sporting Club, Berlin

17-20 US OPEN, Pinehurst, North Carolina

24-27 Compaq European Grand Prix, De Vere Slaley Hall, Northumberland

JULY

1-4 Murphy's Irish Open, Druids Glen, County Wicklow

7-10 Standard Life Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond, Scotland

15-18 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP, Carnoustie, Scotland

22-25 TNT Dutch Open, Hilversum

30-2 Aug Smurfit European Open, K Club, County Kildare

AUGUST

5-8 Volvo Scandinavian Masters, Barseback, Malmo, Sweden

12-15 US PGA, Medinah, Chicago

19-22 BMW International Open, Nord-Eichenried, Munich, Germany

26-29 World Golf Championship NEC Invitational, Akron, Ohio

SEPTEMBER

2-5 Canon European Masters, Crans-sur-Sierre, Switzerland

9-12 One 2 One British Masters, venue tba

16-19 Lancome Trophy, St Nom-la-Breteche, Paris, France

24-26 RYDER CUP, Brookline, Boston

30-3 Oct Linde German Masters, Gut Larchenhof, Cologne

OCTOBER

7-10 Alfred Dunhill Cup, St Andrews, Scotland

14-17 Cisco World Match Play, Wentworth, Surrey

14-17 Open Novotel Perrier, Golf du Medoc, Bordeaux, France

21-24 Belgacom Open, Royal Zoute, Belgium

28-31 Volvo Masters, Montecastillo, Jerez, Spain

NOVEMBER

4-7 World Golf Championship Strokeplay, Valderrama, Spain

11-14 Johnnie Walker Classic, venue tba

18-21 World Cup of Golf, Mines Resort, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

18-23 European Tour qualifying school finals, San Roque and Sotogrande, Spain

THE CONTENDERS

ERNIE ELS

Has the busiest international schedule of any of the leading players and paid the penalty when he was struck down by a back injury last June. Consequently suffered a disappointing middle and end to what had started out as an outstanding season. Down to fifth on the world rankings but keen to challenge Tiger Woods for the No 1 spot and add to his two US Opens. Just married and will spend much of the summer at his new home at Wentworth.

LEE WESTWOOD

Another newly wed who is currently honeymooning in the Caribbean. Deserves the break after winning seven times last year and 10 times within 13 months. At No 8 on the world rankings has overtaken Colin Montgomerie as the leading British player and will want to end the Scot's six-year tenure in the European No 1 spot. But getting into contention in the majors will be his highest priority.

TIGER WOODS

Too many seconds and thirds last year and too few victories have rubbed away some of Woods' mystique as a phenomenon but added credence to his belief that he is now consistently a better player. Masters and the Open - if he can beat Mark O'Meara - remain his best chances of adding to his solitary major but the new World Matchplay Championship should bring out his flair for one-on-one combat.

DARREN CLARKE

Has taken time to learn the winning habit but proved he has done so to brilliant effect by winning the Volvo Masters last November. Enjoying fatherhood, he has given up smoking and gone on a fitness drive in an attempt to convert more of his near-misses, as at the Open at Royal Troon in '97. Feels 66-1 is far off the mark for his chances at Augusta after finishing eighth on his debut in the Masters last year.

DAVID DUVAL

The Westwood of the US tour, on which he has already claimed the season- opening Mercedes Cham- pionship by nine strokes to record his eighth win since October 1997. But just as he struggled to break through, has yet to prove himself in the majors. Led the Masters briefly with three holes to play last April but overtaken by O'Meara's late charge.

JESPER PARNEVIK

Under that cap with the upturned peak and in between munching volcanic sand hides a ball striker of rare quality honed on the testing fairways of the US Tour over the last few seasons. Will split his schedule on both sides of the Atlantic after rejoining the European Tour, a requirement for him to make the Ryder Cup team. Three chances to win the Open in the last five years have only convinced him he can become the first Swede to win a major championship.

THE PRETENDERS

Comments