There was something missing from the PGA Tour’s recent World Golf Championship event at Doral.
A tournament with only 74 players in the field is an outing, not a true world championship. Sure, it’s the cream of he crop in golf, but even cream has to float on top of something. In the WGC events, there’s nothing underneath the cream.
Perhaps that’s one reason the WGC events have generated little or no buzz since their creation in the late 1990s — the Accenture World Match Play has been a modest critical success because match play makes for the best theater, but it hasn’t exactly captured the public’s interest.
As a limited-field exercise, it’s hard to take the other WGC events too seriously. Plus they haven’t had time to build any history. If you can name a memorable WGC moment, other than John Daly smoking during that playoff with Tiger Woods at Harding Park, give yourself double bonus points.
Woods has dominated the series, winning 13 of 24 WGC events. Maybe there’s a reason beyond the obvious — that he’s the best player by a mile. The WGC events are basically just a cash grab. Maybe someday they’ll develop into something more, but all the PGA Tour has to offer as an inducement to attract the top players is big money. So the purses are $8 million and there’s no cut. It’s a guaranteed payday — a disguised appearance fee. There was absolutely no buzz Friday at Doral, and that may have been the lack of urgency to play well because there’s no cut.
Other than the 30-man Tour Championship, the WGC events are the easiest tournaments to win because they offer the fewest opponents to beat. It’s not a weak field because of who’s there; it’s weak due to a lack of depth. You’re talking about a field that’s half the size of a normal tour event — 70 or so versus 144 or 156. The PGA Tour’s slogan of “These guys are good” is true in the sense that anybody in a field can catch fire and shoot 63 any day.
In a full field, half a dozen players shoot lights-out every day. In a half-field, only two or three do. Golf leaderboards are exciting because they’re bunched, and that’s a function of the numbers. With a full field, it’s going to be more like the Tour de France — no one usually breaks away from the pack without taking a half-dozen pursuers with him. In a half field, well, Tiger or Darren Clarke or someone else can break away from the field and win in a runaway.
In addition, the field is a patchwork quilt of who deserves to be there. Basically, it’s the top 50 in the world along with assorted throw-ins — the top three finishers on the money lists from Japan, Australia, Asia and South Africa. Some aren’t even ranked in the top 100. So you end up with the kind of disparity that existed at Doral. Ryder Cuppers Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Vaughn Taylor and Scott Verplank, all ranked just outside the top 50, didn’t get in the field. Prom Meesawat, Thongchai Jaidee, Louis Oosthuizen, Anton Haig, Hideto Tanihara and Shingo Katayama did. They’re accomplished players with credentials, but are they better than Clarke and Westwood?
Here’s how I’d fix the WGC series:
Increase the fields to 144 (or 120 at the very least). Any event with serious designs on being a world championship should include the top 100 players from the Official World Rankings (or 120 in a field of 144). The remaining spots could be filled from the various tours’ money lists. That would allow the likes of Meesawat and Oosthuizen and the rest to continue teeing it up with the big boys (because you never know which unheralded foreigner could turn into tomorrow’s Vijay Singh) and insure a representative worldwide field.
Inviting the top 100 eliminates the complaints that the WGC series is elitist. If you can’t play your way into the top 100, it’s your own fault. Shut up and play better. The boosted field size confronts an issue that has been a controversy of late. Woods agreed to host a new event in Washington, D.C., and wanted to make it a limited field invitational Several Tour players were outspoken in their criticism of adding another limited-field event to the schedule. There were more complaints at Doral when the realization hit home that the last two weeks of qualifying for the Masters were limited-field events — Bay Hill, an invitational that featured 122 players, and Doral, which had 74. That didn’t seem fair. The Tour responded to the complaints about the new D.C. event by making it a big invitational — the field will be 120.
The Tour is talking about adding another tournament for everyone else the week of Doral, but that’s a bad idea. The Tour doesn’t need more second-rate satellite events in other countries. Quantity doesn’t equal quality. Just make the WGC events at Doral and Firestone full-field events. Problem solved.
Cut to the low 70 and ties after two rounds. Initiating a cut is something the PGA Tour will like — that means this whole shindig won’t cost them any more money. They’ll still be paying only 70 or so players, so it’s still a big payday for those who make the cut (players like that), and it’s a big week for garnering world-ranking points (players like that, too). The WGC events will become a tempting opportunity instead of merely a cash reward for those who need it least. If the WGC events are as important as the Tour believes they are, top-name players aren’t going to stay home just because they have to play well to make a check. If that’s the case, the tour can always kick out $15,000 to those who miss the cut as a reimbursement for expenses for the week — a little something for the effort.
See the world. Foreign players and journalists gripe that too many so-called world events are held in America. They’re right. That’s a function of going where the money is (not many European corporations are ready to plunk down $10 million to be a sponsor) and where the television viewers are. Still, something has to be done. With the FedEx Cup series looming, it would be difficult to move the Bridgestone Invitational out of Akron and force players to make another long overseas trip in the middle of a stretch where many players will tee it up seven out of nine weeks after the British Open. The Match Play was a disaster when it was hosted in Australia — the top Americans stayed home. If anything is going to move, it has to the CA Championship at Doral (which is too bad since it’s a great fit in the Florida swing). That’s the way it goes.
Why not let a European Tour stop host a WGC event? Tiger usually plays in Dubai. The Dubai Desert Classic could be designated the WGC stop in some years. The Australia Open or the Australian PGA could take the designation in another. Or one of the European stops in China. When the WGC event moves out of the country, an opposite-field event could be played at Doral.
Sure, this whole idea would be a contractual and logistical nightmare for a Tour, driven by television’s needs, that isn’t used to sharing. But if you really want to be a world championship event, you’ve got to see the world. And you’ve got to let the world in.