The Players Championship – aka the world's richest tournament, aka the fifth major, aka the PGA Tour's flagship event – will be minus the professional currently ranked the game's best player. With the news American officials were dreading, Lee Westwood revealed yesterday he will be skipping Sawgrass this year.
It seems certain the US Tour will have some explaining to do, if only to their sponsors. The world No 1, who two years ago resigned his American card, would play the $9.5m (£5.9m) spectacular, but feels the rigid rules are stopping him when put alongside his own scheduling demands. "I'd go over for the Players if I could play in the tournament the week before, but I don't want to pitch up at the Players cold, having not played for four weeks since Augusta," said Westwood. "So I'll play a couple of tournaments on the European Tour instead."
How the Players' sponsors and Wells Fargo, the US bank which backs the preceding week's Quail Hollow Championship, will feel about this does not require imagination, particularly in light of the continuing financial situation. They may even contact the Tour to ask why they are being denied one of golf's biggest names when he might grace their event. What they will encounter is a bizarre length of red tape threatening to strangle the very organisation it is supposed to protect. To be fair, it is a similar story in Europe, where members must play a minimum of 13 events.
"This sums up what's wrong with golf at the moment," said Westwood's manager, Chubby Chandler. "There are too many people in power thinking only about their own interests rather than what's good for the game. It does my head in to think the world No 1 in his sport can't play in a tournament he wants to play in, and which the sponsor wants him to play in."
Other sports will doubtless share Chandler's bemusement. But the PGA Tour will claim that, like the European Tour, they are simply following their rules and are not punishing the Englishman for refusing to sign up for the FedEx Series, their end-of-season dollar-fest.
When Westwood resigned his US membership, it meant he would be limited to 10 events. Take off the majors and the World Golf Championships and that leaves him with three. His year is built around winning majors and, in preparation, he likes to play the week before. Houston will thus benefit in the run-up to the Masters as will Memphis (where he won last year) before the US Open. As March's Honda Classic has long been inked in on a schedule carefully put together under the guidance of his fitness guru, Steve McGregor, Westwood feels he has used up all his US options.
The question is that, as the game goes global, shouldn't the top players be able to play where they please?
In truth, this is essentially America's loss as Westwood plainly isn't too concerned. If he was, he would travel over to Florida for a week. He is probably not alone in his indifference; Rory McIlroy is also considering missing Sawgrass. "The Players is a big PGA Tour event – but that's all it is," said Chandler, who also oversees the young Ulsterman.
Of course, to the PGA Tour it is rather more than that and this is why they quickly changed their rules late last year when they first heard rumblings of Westwood's intentions. They thought they had solved the problem by affording the Players special status, so allowing Westwood not to count it in his 10. They hadn't.
It would be so much less embarrassing for them if Westwood is not still the No 1 in May. But a victory in an Abu Dhabi Championship boasting seven members of the top 12 would make the tag extremely secure.
But Westwood, who turns 38 in April, will have to be on top form to see off a field which also includes the world No 3, Martin Kaymer and the joint No 4s, Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell. Mickelson is such a welcome visitor to the European Tour, who were thrilled to hear him say yesterday that, with his family in tow, he plans to play more of an "international" schedule. "We want to expand our horizons," he said. Not to mention their bank balance. Mickelson is reportedly receiving a $1.5m appearance fee.Reuse content