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The Next Golf War

Author A.G. Pollard

Young Texas newcomer Anthony Kim looks to the Old World to cash in.

COMPARED TO NEWS OF THE international financial implosion or the presidential election, the brief announcement by the organizers of the European PGA Tour late last fall did not, on the surface, seem especially earth-shattering. But in the tight-knit world of professional golf, it was big news indeed, as dangerous a threat to American dominance of the sport as a crabgrass infestation to a putting green.

It seems that American Anthony Kim, the 23-year-old phenom who won twice on our PGA Tour in 2008, banking more than $4.6 million and leaping into the top ten in the world rankings, had quietly paid the modest membership fee for the Euro Tour. While he’d still be playing a full schedule in the states, it seemed he was planning on a bit of trans-Atlantic travel.

I hear you. No big deal, right? I mean, there’s a long list of dual golf citizens, as it were, including many of the European Tour’s top players, guys like Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia and Darren Clarke. But the Dallas-born Kim was a star, one of the hottest young shooters on the stateside Tour, and it seems he isn’t alone among upstarts suddenly looking to double their fun. Camilo Villegas, a young star from Colombia, has also signed on for the European Tour, and Canadian Mike Weir is said to be seriously thinking about it. Rumor has it that even Phil Mickelson, one of the sport’s most respected players, has been gazing longingly toward the Old World.

What’s going on here? Have our best young players decided to become golfing ex-pats, donning jaunty berets, puffing on Gauloises and sipping young Bordeaux along the Parisian boulevards while contemplating the unbearable lightness of the hybrid iron?

Well, no. What’s driving Kim and the others is more than just croissants: It’s money. Dinero. Filthy lucre. These are professional golfers, remember, for whom putting greens and greenbacks are equally enticing. A dollar will always get a golfer’s attention, even if it’s disguised as a Euro.

The European Tour has assiduously courted top-level American players with its rather lax participation requirements. Golfers must take part in just 12 events per year, which can include the four majors— three of which are held in the United States—as well as the three World Golf Championships, all of which are held stateside. So with a little judicious scheduling, it’s not hard to qualify. Moreover, the 2009 European Tour schedule actually began in the fall of 2008 with tournaments in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the first 2009 European Tour event that will actually take place on European soil is this month’s Madeira Islands Open in Portugal. So there are plenty of play dates that don’t conflict with the U.S. Tour.

Colombian phenom Camilo Villegas has joined Kim and Canadian Mike Weir in
crossing the pond for some extra pocket money.

Thus a young superstar like Kim can sign up for actual four-day, large-purse golf tournaments in various global locales while the US Tour is staging its “silly season” events—its annual winter warm-ups in Hawaii and the desert Southwest. As everyone knows, the real PGA Tour season doesn’t get serious until mid-March, in the run-up to April’s Masters.

There’s another reason why Kim might find Europe attractive: Win or lose, he gets paid to play. Though forbidden in the United States, appearance fees—by which a player pockets a fat wad of cash merely for showing up—are routine in Europe, just a cost of doing business. So although the prize money that Kim stands to win in Europe doesn’t compare with what he can earn here in the United States (at least until all the busted banks and car companies begin cutting back on their levels of economic support), he can make up the difference with appearance fees.

As if that’s not enough, the European Tour recently added a further incentive: the so-called Race to Dubai, a $10 million season-long points competition culminating in a final tournament at year’s end in the oil-rich Middle East. The winner walks away with a cool $2 million.

It’s a lot like our somewhat ho-hum FedEx Cup, which pays a pretty good bonus of $10 million to the winner.

Theoretically, if Kim piles up points during the year on both Tours, winning a few events and playing well in the majors, he could qualify for both year-end playoffs. What that means, assuming he finishes high on the leader-board, is even more booty weighing down his pockets.

And there is yet another reason why a hot young golfer from the United States might consider crossing the pond to tee up: Tiger Woods. While Woods himself plays all around the world as a kind of one-man goodwill tour of golf, he remains loyal to the US PGA Tour.

So why wouldn’t Kim—or Phil Mickelson, for that matter—want to crawl out from under Woods’ massive shadow from time to time? If you were Kim, who would you rather see on the leaderboard going into Sunday’s final round: Woods or Westwood?

To a man, the PGA Tour players all expressed disappointment when Tiger was injured for the second half of the season last year, saying he was good for the game, they all wanted to play against the best, yadda yadda yadda. To a man, they were all basically lying through their teeth. Their own prospects improved exponentially in Woods’ absence.

Kim greets the faithful at last year’s Ryder Cup in Kentucky. His final day win over
Sergio Garcia led the United States to victory over Europe.

What is happening here—and Kim will not be the last good player to see the handwriting on the wall—is the continuing stratification of the world of golf into an A-list and everyone else. In the elite are Woods, Mickelson and the rest of the top 25 or so players in the world, who now include Kim.

These days, golf is exciting only when the world’s best are all in the field. That only happens at the four major tournaments, The Players Championship, the World Match Play Championship, the CA Championship at Doral, the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and probably the invitational tournaments held by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Everything else is roughly equivalent to the Quad Cities, no disrespect intended towards Moline, Davenport, Bettendorf and whatever the fourth city is.

By making it easy for American stars to play in Europe, the European Tour is hoping that it can attract at least a few A-list players from the United States to come over and brighten up some of its otherwise work-a-day events.

What can PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem do to stem the flow of talent across the pond? Hard to say. He insists on maintaining the 15-event requirement for membership and steadfastly refuses to allow appearance fees. With tournament sponsors dropping like flies due to the tough economic climate, his hands are pretty well tied. Merely insisting that the PGA tour offers the world’s best golf won’t hold water anymore. Golf, like everything else, has gone global. And Kim is just following bank robber Willie Sutton’s dictum to go “where the money is.”

That’s the “invisible hand” of the capitalist marketplace at work— though in this case, at least, it has an overlapping grip.

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