You would have thought it was a Hall of Fame luncheon to look at the talent gathered around a conference room at the 1994 Shark Shootout, at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Greg Norman, who would spend 331 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world and later become chairman and CEO of Great White Shark Enterprises, was flanked by his lawyer and another business partner. The Australian was pitching the idea of a new world tour.
A Queenslander who once dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, Norman can be imposing, and his business acumen has rewarded him handsomely. Still, on that day he wasn't alone at the top. Nick Price, a Zimbabwean neighbor of Norman's on South Florida's Gold Coast, had won six times in '94, including two majors. As Norman took inventory of golf's superstars, he noted that many were not Americans, and he chafed at the PGA Tour mandate that its members must play at least 15 events. He also knew that out of a 144- or 156-man field, only a very few players moved the needle when it came to ratings and gate receipts. So with Fox TV and business partners, Norman hatched an eight-event world tour in which 40 players would vie for big cash. Now he just had to sell the idea to the men who could give it wings.
"It was an unbelievable cast of characters," says Brad Faxon, who was in the room. "Palmer, Jack, Floyd, Price, Frost, Wadkins, Couples. I think Greg had seven or eight events, four of which preceded the majors. He didn't tell us if he had anyone to televise it. This wasn't done in conjunction with the PGA Tour, and Palmer spoke out about that. Price said that coming here from Zimbabwe he owed his livelihood to the PGA Tour. Nobody signed anything.
"I hated to see the infighting," Faxon adds. "The idea had a lot of merit."
Norman's proposal was the first big test for PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who in his first year on the job would prove a fast learner who brooked no dissent. He squashed the idea by threatening to ban disloyal players, then five years later launched his own version of Norman's vision: the World Golf Championships.
Today, nearly 17 years later, a true world tour akin to that of professional tennis has still not come to pass. Britain's Lee Westwood is among those who say that's a shame. With top players flooding in from all corners of the globe and the European and PGA tours flourishing while sticking to their own rules and quirks, players' schedules have become a battleground, and an edgy, us-against-them vibe has crept in on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Westwood announced in January that he would skip the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, May 12-15, it looked like he was using his No. 1 ranking to thumb his nose at Uncle Sam. It was enough that Europe had won the Ryder Cup; that in the post-Tiger era Europe was widely acknowledged to have better players at the top than the U.S.; that Westwood, Germany's Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland (who will also skip the Players) had declined PGA Tour membership. Now Westwood was opting out of the Tour's flagship event.
With three top-10s in nine starts at TPC Sawgrass, Westwood doesn't hate the course; McIlroy, with two missed-cuts in two starts, does dislike it. That distinction became blurred when their voluble agent, Chubby Chandler—think Tony Soprano with a British accent—said that the Players has been hurt by its move to May and, on CNN's Living Golf, called it "the 10th most important tournament."
Chandler delights in poking the PGA Tour; he once said that playing in the U.S. was "nine months of eating chicken wings and burgers, and having 'You're the man' belted out every other week." A middling player for 15 years in Europe, he launched International Sports Management in 1989. Having befriended many of his players as amateurs—he and Westwood won the British Youth Championship 20 years apart—he is like a father figure to them, enjoying fierce loyalty in return.
Asked at the WGC-Accenture Match Play if he earned a bonus for reaching No. 1 in the world, Westwood replied simply, "Yes." After a pause he elaborated.
"It depends on how smart a manager you've got," he said with a sly smile.
Such confidence can come across as arrogance, and it doesn't help that some Americans treat the Players like the Ryder Cup and the majors: an event you play if you're eligible. To break that omerta is to upset the natural order of things, and to break it and tweet about it is particularly risible. "They've played great and they're confident; we can tell that by reading their quotes," Stewart Cink says of the Euros. "But if they don't want to come over to play in the Players Championship, I don't understand that. I don't understand if they're trying to hurt our Tour, or what."
"It's a hell of a statement," says David Duval, "from two guys who haven't won on our Tour very much and haven't won any majors."
As a former PGA Tour member who let his membership expire after finishing 57th on the money list in 2008, Westwood can play just 10 Tour events in 2011. This is the most basic point of contention between him and Finchem, that the penalty for lapsed Tour members (regular non-members can play 12 events) is too strict. "I haven't asked for any rules to be changed," Westwood says. "But I'm struggling to see why, as someone that was a member and fulfilled all the commitments, I should be [limited] to fewer tournaments than somebody that's never been a member. I don't see how anybody benefits."
The PGA Tour declined to answer questions for this story; a spokesperson said Finchem would address these issues at a later date. European Tour Chief Executive George O'Grady calls Westwood "one of our most loyal, committed members."
Westwood will play in the four majors, three WGCs, and three Tour events that fit his schedule: the Honda Classic (between two WGCs); the Houston Open, the week before the Masters; and June's FedEx St. Jude Classic, where he'll defend. That's 10 events. When the Tour backed off and said he could play in 10 tournaments plus the Players, it didn't help because Westwood wanted to play Quail Hollow, site of the Wells Fargo Championship, the week before Sawgrass to sharpen his game. Says Wells Fargo tournament director Kym Hougham, "It's frustrating when the type of player we're all trying to get wants to play in your tournament but can't because of rules you can't control."
The 12-10 rule is only the tip of the nuclear warhead. Early-season European Tour events like the Abu Dhabi HSBC continue to lure top players like Phil Mickelson to the Middle East with appearance fees, thereby depleting West Coast Swing events like the Bob Hope Classic, at which Mickelson used to be a regular. "I picked out six or seven very prominent players over there [in Abu Dhabi] that I would have liked to have had in this field," says Hope tournament chairman Larry Thiel.
Finchem absorbed more criticism in Europe last fall for the FedEx Cup supposedly pushing the Ryder Cup to early October, into rainy season in Wales. But O'Grady points out the event might have had similar weather in July. "The 2014 Ryder Cup will almost certainly finish by September 28," he says. "The weather in Scotland can be quite nice then. It can also be not very nice."
This year has brought another scheduling headache. The PGA Tour's biennial Presidents Cup is scheduled for the same week as the South African Open, which is co-sanctioned by the European Tour, Nov. 17-20. That will force Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and others to make a difficult choice: Play in their national open, or play for Greg Norman's International team in Australia.
"The European Tour is not taking the Presidents Cup as seriously as they take the Ryder Cup," says Goosen, who still holds out hope that the tours will work out a diplomatic solution before it's too late.
O'Grady confirms that representatives of the International Federation of PGA Tours could avert the scheduling conflict when they meet at the Masters. "The South Africans choose their own date," he says of the Sunshine Tour and its chairman, Johann Rupert. "We have no intention of hindering the Presidents Cup if we can help it. We like the event. It spreads the gospel of golf."
Finchem and O'Grady talk at least once every few weeks by phone, and occasionally play golf at TPC Sawgrass, Sunningdale or elsewhere. "He's a fraction better than I am," O'Grady says, unprompted. Far more interesting is their off-course strategizing and political maneuvering, especially in the wake of the European surge.
Only 14 European Tour members played in the inaugural WGC-Accenture Match Play, in 1999. The final four that year were all Americans. In the 2011 edition, 30 of the 64 competitors were European Tour members, and for the second straight year a pair of Euros met in the final. The U.S. has lost its strangle-hold, but in a way it hasn't even begun to loosen its grip. Three of golf's four majors are played stateside, and the three biggest WGCs are held in the not so far-flung locales of Marana, Ariz.; Miami; and Akron, Ohio. That doesn't sit well with Westwood. "What everybody's got to realize is it's a global game," he says. "You've got the great young players coming from all over, and if you're going to call them World Golf Championships, you've got to play them around the world."
Westwood sounds a lot like Norman, who in 2008 told Sports Illustrated, "Finchem is either blind to it, or he simply doesn't care what kind of effect he has on the rest of the world."
O'Grady agrees it would be nice to take golf to developing regions in ways beyond just the TV coverage, as he believes was intended, but hastens to add that economic realities have kept the WGC series mostly in America. "He who pays the piper plays the tune," he says.
That may be so, but the red, white and blue hues of the supposedly World Championship events isn't the only thing that irks Westwood. The European Tour has a flagship event, too, but relatively few Yanks decamp for Europe's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, May 26-29 (opposite the HP Byron Nelson). "There's a top-50 in the world exemption for it," Westwood says. "Why don't the eligible Americans come and play in it? That's like me not playing in the Players, but they do it on a mass scale."
No one used to worry about whether the No. 1 player would show up for the Players, or whether Americans would play the BMW at Wentworth. As much as anything else, the events of the last year and a half have sparked most of the unrest, starting with Thanksgiving night 2009. "Something cracked when Tiger had his demise," says agent Chandler. "Nobody thought someone else would be No. 1 in the world so quickly."
When Westwood turned over the top spot to Kaymer in late February it hardly mattered—a European still reigned. Finchem and his staff can no longer set the agenda from Tour HQ in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and expect everyone else to fall into line. American tournament directors will want the No. 1 player no matter his nationality, which means fixing the rule that handcuffed Westwood this year.
The PGA Tour still possesses a certain luster, and O'Grady admits that when he attends the Players he always finds elements to copy. Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter are among the Europeans who live mostly in America now, maintaining memberships both here (they must play at least 15 events) and in Europe (13). Given the chance to join the PGA Tour in 2011, European Tour veterans Robert Karlsson and Louis Oosthuizen didn't hesitate.
"We'd love to have Lee and Rory on our tour," says Jim Furyk, who is chairman of the PGA Tour's 16-man Player Advisory Council, "but either way the show will go on. We still have the premier tour in the world with the greatest percentage of the top 100 players."
Golf will probably never be governed by one tour, and maybe the majors wouldn't be majors if the top players saw each other all the time. But as both tours grow they will have to work to avoid another swampy Ryder Cup, or what O'Grady calls the "totally unsatisfactory" pileup of the 2011 Presidents Cup and South African Open, or Europe's finest skipping the Players. "The territorial stuff is not healthy at the moment," Chandler says. "You'd be better off having tournaments count for official money on both sides."
Maybe that would get Westwood and McIlroy to the TPC, and the top Americans to Wentworth. Both events would in essence become WGCs, not that they're beyond reproach either. Says Chandler, "Everything needs to be looked at."