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America in the doldrums
Carnoustie's Maiden brothers and Bobby Jones would not recognise the East Lake area of Atlanta today and they would certainly not recognise the East Lake golf course. The old course at East Lake fell into decay and the Athletic Club became the pre-eminent golfing venue in post-war Atlanta. But that has all changed with the rejuvenation of the East Lake area and the resurrection of the East Lake course - or rather its total redesign and reconstruction, which contribute nothing to its great heritage.

The old East Lake course spawned Bobby Jones at a time when the US was becoming the dominant force in world golf. The redoubtable Bobby not only underlined US supremacy but he also inspired a new wave of home grown, college educated, country club players to take the game to a new level that it has taken the rest of the world 50 years to aspire to and 30 years to attain.

The old East Lake may have witnessed the birth of a new era in American golf with the emergence of Bobby Jones but it may also have witnessed the end of that era of global supremacy at the conclusion of the 2004 US Tour Championship.

The US Tour has done little to hide its concerns about the affairs and failing fortunes of US pro golf for its job is neither easy nor without a high global profile. The Tour not only has to attract sponsorship for tournaments but also has to maintain the interests of the TV companies. It is a vicious circle. To attract sponsorship for tournaments, investors require assurance about TV exposure. TV coverage of events requires the attention of a viewing public that is already sated with sports programmes and is increasingly fickle for sensation. Stars are required - charismatic, colourful stars - American, supermen of the links that are perceived as unbeatable. For four years Tiger Woods stimulated the already perceptibly flagging American pro game, but even the greatest player that the world has ever seen cannot win as consistently as the armchair pundit would demand. Tiger has been eclipsed and even the most committed US armchair sports fan, and hence TV companies and therefore sponsors, could not ignore the outcome of the last five Ryder Cups. The US Tour may not be in crisis but it certainly has cause for concern.

Interest in golf in the US is flagging and the Tour's response is to attempt to compel the best and the brightest in the world to commit themselves to the US Tour. This flies in the face of reason for pro golf is now truly global. Those at the top of the game have contractual commitments to global corporations that require their global exposure; allegiances to Tours have become secondary.

How things have changed. There was a time when the top European players were limited in the number of US Tour events they could enter. Now, the US Tour is demanding that they play a minimum of 20 events, a number that it would make it almost impossible for them to compete for their own Tour honours.

Els and Goosen from South Africa and Adam Scott from Australia are the US Tour's principal targets, but Clarke, Harrington and Garcia have also received due notice and, needless to say, neither they, nor the corporations they endorse, far less the European Tour administrators, are happy about the matter.

With VJ Singh ranked world number one and Goosen ambling in from time-to-time to pick up the big pots, there is understandable disquiet in America. Goosen's four shot win over Woods at East Lake did nothing to alleviate the woes for the big amiable South African generates the same sort of excitement you get from taking a cold shower. The PR people could have done something with a beaming Woods taking the laurels, or a craggy 50 year old Haas winning from the front after four days play, but stretching interest in a Goosen victory is not unlike packaging mashed potatoes as an epicurean feast.

It is clear that the US Tour is a victim of its own success and, more important, a victim of the success of Tiger Woods for it has created superstars that are bigger than the Tour and even more high-handed and independent. But it is also clear that American golf is a victim of complacency and questionable judgement. After the likeable but obviously misplaced Hal Sutton, the US PGA has chosen Tom Lehman as captain of its Ryder Cup team for the matches in Ireland in 2006. This selection is bewildering to many here in Europe and hardly a panacea to America's Ryder Cup ills.

Lehman's Ryder record is good but, given the opportunity to vitalise and galvanise the game with someone like Fred Couples or Corey Pavin, the selection of Lehman is like forecasting three days of rain for the event two years early. Tom Lehman has been at the forefront of the unacceptable behaviour that has blighted the event since 1995. Few can forget his match with Ballesteros when he putted out of turn and did nothing to suppress the crowd when it became unruly as a result of his indignation to Ballesteros' complaint. His fist-pumping from day one at Brookline was as much in bad taste as his conducting the crowd in a chorus of 'God Bless America' was bad mannered. Lehman had ample opportunity to apologise for leading the notorious charge across the 17th green at Brookline in '99 but he failed to do so. He will have difficulty living down the epithet Sam Torrence subsequently awarded him with the words: 'Calls himself a man of God. That was the most disgraceful thing I've ever seen.'

In the selection of Lehman, the US PGA may have provided the greatest fillip to continuing European success in the Ryder Cup but it will have done nothing to stimulate interest in golf in the USA.

©    8 - NOVEMBER 2004

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