Ernie Els went west at long last for the Bay Hill confrontation with Tiger Woods but it proved to be a non-event for both ended tied in 23rd place. From the onset on Friday, after a waterlogged Thursday was written off, it was clear that neither was likely to make an impression. Woods duck-hooked off the first tee and Els, in the space of six holes, put his ball in the water twice and out of bounds once. After two weeks in arid Arabia, Els was asking a lot of himself in dank, damp Florida.
With a $5 million pot to play for at Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer's event commands attention. Occurring a week before the Tournament Players' Championship, however, it hardly focuses the mind and one has the feeling that, for the big boys, it serves as a sort of pressured practise before the big event down the road. It would certainly surprise if Woods and Els were not serious challengers next week and it would be equally surprising if Goosen and Singh play as indifferently as they did at Bay Hill. Goosen posted a first round 78 before rocketing through the ranks to a top-five finish. Singh pulled back a three shot deficit in the last four holes before taking a risk with his second shot to the last green that left him with a double bogey and joint second place, gifting the title to journeyman Kenny Perry. The TPC will be an altogether different matter.
If Bay Hill does no more that focus the mind of the big name players, it should draw attention of the powers that be in the game worldwide to the composition of the field, for almost half of it was of foreign origin. There were 15 out of the 24 card-carrying Australians on the US Tour in the field. There was a Korean and at least 15 regular European Tour players contesting for the money. Hardly surprising, then, that the word coming from the locker rooms is that a number of Americans are unhappy about the situation. But such talk must be mere muttering compared to the screams of concern emanating from European Tour headquarters at Wentworth. George O'Grady could not have taken over the role of executive director at a worse time.
Although Garcia and Donald have virtually played full time in America, a new wave of young players in Europe are seeing their future on the United States Tour. With Graeme McDowell (picyured) taking joint second place with Singh at Bay Hill and pocketing half-a-million dollars in the process, more are likely to look longingly across the Atlantic. Who can blame them? Certainly, if given the choice of playing in China or Florida, few players would hesitate to plump for the latter. Seeing the achievements and earnings of Greg Owen and Brian Davies in these opening months of the season must be making more reconsider the future.
It says much for Owen and Davies that they had courage and confidence enough to cast their lot into the hot-house of American pro golf in 2005, and it says even more that they are currently first and second placed highest earning rookies in America. Westwood and Clarke are already rich men but they too have increased their US commitments and it is hardly surprising that McDowell also sees his future in America.
For players like Poulter and Casey, what is known as the Ryder Cup rule, which grants US Tour access to all Ryder Cup players, is manna from heaven for even the 50th placed player on the US Tour will earn more than $1 million. Harrington will earn almost 10 times that sum in US endorsements alone, and Ian Poulter will not be far behind. These guys are characters who bring a certain vivacity to the US Tour and, even if the home grown guys don't like it, the viewing public, and therefore the sponsors, do - and they, as they say, are the bottom line.
As the European Tour increasingly struggles to attract sponsorship in the absence of big name players, bitterness will ensue. But it has always been this way and it pre-dates Jacklin and Faldo by over 100 years. Ever since America discovered 'Golf Links', the best and brightest in the game have gone west to make their names as well as their fortunes in the game.
James Foulis left the clubmakers bench in Tom Morris' shop for Chicago in the 1890's and, instead of consigning himself to penury and obscurity as the pessimists insisted, he returned to St Andrews for a holiday in 1902 a rich and successful man. Like Owen and Davis, he found not only wealth but also a new way of life. Foulis worked hard in Chicago and was well rewarded for his efforts, earning respect as well as money. Also, like Vijay Singh, Foulis learned not to rest on his laurels after winning the first US Open at Shinnecock and his work ethic made him a very rich man. It is hardly surprising that, by the close of the 19th century, every young man of talent and ambition left to join Foulis and the stream of golfing emigres in America. Their competitiveness raised standards and brought about the burgeoning of US golf. Everyone benefited from the migration for those coming through in the game at home had focused objective and heightened ambition.
Nothing changes. 'Go west young man' was the advice Tom Morris received when he left St Andrews for Prestwick in 1850. It was the same advice he gave to James Foulis in 1895 and it is advice that is as sensible and pertinent today as it ever was.
|| 21 - MARCH 2005