MARANA, Arizona (AP) — This being an election year in the United States, a popular question seemed appropriate for golf’s most seasoned politician.
Are the World Golf Championships better off than they were 10 years ago?
“I think they’ve matured,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said before flying out to the high desert to celebrate the 10th year of this lucrative series. “There’s more history, more stuff to talk about, more memories. That’s true with any tournament.”
Maybe that’s the problem.
The longer the “World” Golf Championships are anchored in America, the more they look like any other tournament. As more PGA Tour events keep raising their standards, the more they rival WGC events that were meant to be special.
“I don’t see them moving forward,” Adam Scott said, an opinion shared by many of his peers. “It’s not different for the money. They’re not playing them on great golf courses. It’s just another event. They’ve lost some of the luster they once had.”
Given a full menu of great tournaments, British Open champion Padraig Harrington is skipping the next one at Doral.
“I don’t think I would have 10 years ago,” he said.
The WGCs have brought together players from around the world, and that’s never a bad thing. It also doesn’t hurt that their history and highlights revolve around the world’s No. 1 player.
The entrance to Dove Mountain, where the Accenture Match Play Championship is being held for the second straight year, is lined with banners of past WGC winners, two champions for each wooden post. Each post has at least one photo of Tiger Woods, which only makes sense. In the 26 tournaments, Woods has won 14 times and earned more than $18.5 million.
His highlight reel from the WGCs alone is substantive, both as victor and victim.
Woods won in the dark by 11 shots at Firestone, where fans flicked their lighters as if they were at a rock concert. And speaking of rock concerts, could anything top the energy in San Francisco when Woods and John Daly squared off in a playoff?
There was Darren Clarke going through cigars as easily as he smoked Woods in the Match Play final at La Costa in 2000.
Woods hit three perfect shots and made triple bogey on the 17th hole at Valderrama, but still managed to get into a playoff and beat Miguel Angel Jimenez as the Spanish Civil Guard stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the 18th fairway in the event of chaos.
Even so, the memories are outweighed by “more stuff to talk about,” and it goes back to what Scott said.
How do they move forward when they don’t appear to be moving anywhere at all?
“It would be great if, like their name, they actually were held around the world,” Lee Westwood said. “It’s a disgrace. You might as well call them the World Golf Championships of America. They’re just like any regular U.S. tour event. It’s a good way for getting players to come to the states more regularly. But they’re not World Golf Championships.”
This is nothing new.
The WGCs lost their momentum the first time all three were held in the United States, in 2003, particularly an atrocious site north of Atlanta that delivered all the excitement of an NFL preseason game. A rotation that once featured Spain, Ireland and Australia now has settled into Arizona, Miami and Ohio.
There is a practical side to this. The corporate sponsor footing the bill gets more value from the U.S. market. TV money comes from America, and ratings shrink when a tournament is held five times zone away, if not more.
“While it’s called an international golf series, it probably hasn’t represented that in terms of venues,” said Greg Beckner, a senior marketing director for Accenture. “But for the most part, the players have been truly international.”
Accenture suffered when Match Play went to Australia in 2001. It was held a week after the Christmas holidays, and some two dozen players didn’t bother going.
“The contiguous U.S. works well for us,” Beckner said.
Finchem will argue that the “world” component of this series comes from the players in the field and television beaming their birdies and bogeys into homes of golf fans around the globe.
“I’m sure they’re thrilled in China,” Westwood said.
Still, there is no substitute for the excitement a fan gets from laying eyes on players they only have seen on television or read about in the newspaper. And there is something to be said for the fact Americans are the minority in the these events – only 20 are in the 64-man field at the Match Play, an all-time low – yet they continue to get home games.
“Two-thirds of the field are foreign-born players, so it’s interesting that they’re all played here,” said David Toms, who never missed a WGC event overseas, even in Australia.
Sadly, there is no simple fix.
Finchem made sure of that when he brought CA aboard as a new title sponsor and turned Doral into a WGC event. It had been the one WGC event that alternated between Europe and the United States. Now it’s chained to Miami, while locking out rank-and-file PGA Tour members who are not among the top 30 on their tour or the top 50 in the world.
Finchem is trying to put a WGC event in Asia, although if it’s held after the FedEx Cup, don’t look for many Americans in the field. He also would not rule out a return overseas among existing events in the next TV cycle, but that would not be until 2013.
So, are they better off than they were 10 years ago?
The PGA Tour is better off. The WGCs have made it easier for more international players to take up U.S. membership, bringing a global game to American shores.
A more important question is: Where will they be 10 years from now?