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Autumn of the Tours
The official European Tour season ends this week at Valderama and all the big names will be there. If the official conclusion of the USPGA Tour is a harbinger of things to come then no one should hold their breath over a showdown between Pod Harrington and Retief Goosen.

The format of this year's US Tour Championship was turned upside-down so that the world could watch Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (pictured) play together, one of whom, it was assumed, would triumph in their personal head-to-head and take the title. This is what the Tour organisers are reduced to in an attempt to recapture the attention of a flagging TV golf audience. The organisers could not have done a greater disservice to their organisation and the event.

What they got was spectacular enough, but for all the wrong reasons. Tiger Woods had an arboreal weekend, inspecting more woodland than he did the smartly dressed fairways of the old East Lake course in Atlanta. His recoveries were brilliant, indeed almost unbelievable, but the net result was that he spent the weekend scrambling pars rather than sneaking birdies.

Phil Mickelson played as he always plays, oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous with nonchalant ease.

Vijay Singh won the event with the same uncharismatic ease that has already seen him win six times with Tiger Woods in the field - exactly the same number as David Duval and Phil Mickelson. Vijay was always likely to be in contention on the tight, long old East Lake Course. It is a place that he knows well having been pipped on the last green by Hal Sutton who plucked victory from the jaws of defeat from a greenside bunker four years ago. Then on the last green, this event came to life when it was all over.

It is astonishing how lacklustre this end-of-season event is, despite the money on offer and the hype attached to it. The Sky broadcasting team did its best, assisted by the inevitable Butch Harmon, to bring the thing to life, but to no avail. When Charles Howell III flipped a sand wedge from 110 yards straight into the hole for an eagle at the 13th a general prayer was offered for the sanguine Singh to collapse and young Charlie Howell to charge. Young Charlie did at least make a run but could make no inroads on Vijay's plod as he carried himself to a two shot victory.

Charlie Howell is only 23-years-old. He has already notched up a Tour win this season and amassed some $4 million from his efforts in his short pro career. As the beneficiary of the attentions of David Leadbetter since the age of 10, young Charlie has emerged with David's cloned fine style, consistency, utter lack of charm or charisma, and a total absence of any dress sense. If anyone is to assume the Tiger's crown, the Tour needs young Charlie Howell like it needs continuous rain.

If Valderama reflects what passed as an end-of-season bonanza at East Lake, Colin Montgomerie will stride through to a two-shot win with Paul Casey haplessly snapping at his heels. Pod Harrington and Retief Goosen will fight it out bravely with Retief retaining his place at the top of the winnings table. This he will do with the apparent disinterest that only he can muster while Pod will blast and putt like a drunken sailor into a top-10 finish.

It would certainly not be difficult for the European Tour to end with more of a flourish than its US counterpart. European golf is on a high relative to that in America. With the US economy in the doldrums and Tour sponsorship drying-up, it is timely and significant for Mickelson and Duval to call for a reduction in the number of tournaments played. Economic circumstances dictate that there will be a reduction to 36 Tour events anyway next year. But it is also symptomatic of the whole that these two very rich golfers have come out of the closet, so to speak, for it reflects the extent of the easy pickings that the top-50 US players have enjoyed for so long.

It has long been said that what passes in the US today happens here tomorrow and there are already signs that the lucrative pots in Europe are not swelling to the extent that they once were.

Pro golf over the last 30 years has been built on hype and on the backs of a few super-stars. The problem about hype is that it has to be fuelled and spectacle has to be delivered. The problem about super-stars in golf is that the very nature of the game is such to cut everyone down to size and humiliate mercilessly. Had you spoken to Paul Lawrie when he walked off the 18th green after the Italian Open on Sunday he would not have told you otherwise.

©    4 - NOVEMBER 2002

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