Not to detract from Ernie Els' achievement, it has to be said that the World Matchplay Championship is not what it once was. Held annually on the West Course of the salubrious Wentworth estate, the event is no longer contested by the best or played over the most testing of courses. Time has tamed Wentworth and the worlds' best are more interested in cash than cachet.
The £50,000 on offer for losing in the first round (constituting the appearance money on offer) is not enough to induce the big boys to get up for breakfast, far less subject themselves to the unheard of 36 holes a day. When Tiger Woods gets £1.2 million for showing up and Phil Mickelson gets £500,000 for simply arriving in China, what hope is there of matching the biggest and best together ever again in the true and purest form of the game?
Business management governs where and when the biggest and best will appear. Prestige and the resonance of one's name on a trophy, no matter of what antiquity, are very secondary considerations.
Times have certainly changed since Henry Longhurst passed his jaundiced comments on the play of Neil Coles and Arnold Palmer as they contested the inaugural event all those years ago in 1964. Back then the event merited the title for not only were the best there but the West Course was considered sufficient of a monster, with a par of 74, to test the best. Today, with only two of the world's top-10 present and with Nick Faldo, currently 63rd in the world rankings, in a field that did not include Darren Clarke who occupies 22nd place, one starts to question the prefix 'world'.
The simple fact is that Clarke was not invited because he does not belong to the IMG [International Management Group] stable while Faldo and eight of the other 12 do. Perhaps a better title for the event would be the IMG World Matchplay.
Representation of the worlds' best players aside, Wentworth itself is no longer a venue worthy of staging such an event. In the early days the West Course, largely because of its length, was held in awe by the best players in the world - today's scoring makes it more likely to be held in contempt. No one will surely forget last year's final when Woosnam played 18 holes in 63 shots and went into lunch two down to Pod Harrington. Montgomerie and Els' tussle in this year's second round produced scoring that was near farcical.
Wentworth no longer has teeth. The closing two holes that frightened the faint-hearted 40 years ago are now routinely holed in birdie fours. The Burma Road of renown is now a defenceless pitch and putt. Even relatively short hitters require only a drive and mid iron to reach the 497 yard fourth hole and for the likes of Els and Garcia it has become a routine drive and wedge hole.
It is easy to bemoan the redundancy of these great old courses through the impact of modern equipment. But today's game is being played by athletes who wield what equipment they have to better effect than the podgy pros of yesteryear. If they are to be tested, then they have to be presented with a course that poses greater challenges.
Bunkers on the West Course may have set a test 40 years ago but today, as on most Tour venues they are little more than decorative. Indeed today bunkers, rather than being places penance, are often soft options for getting to the hole. With their artistic raking patterns and fringes cut to coiffured perfection, many bunkers appear to be there for artistic impression rather than impediment. Bunkering of holes as much as length is something that has to be addressed if these old courses are to continue to be the test that they once were.
The passing of the World Matchplay at Wentworth as a truly 'world ' event is tragic for it was the classic end of season that brought joy to millions of golfers. Now, diluted with business management and the Accenture World Matchplay and contested largely by IMG contracted players, it is far from being the event that it once was. It does, however, remain the premier matchplay title for, when one considers the names on the trophy from its onset to the present day, they are all there.
The Accenture on the other hand has thrown up champions like Jeff Maggert and Kevin Sutherland - both, it should be said, nice guys.
|| 21 - OCTOBER 2002