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It's autumn so it must be Wentworth
With the first indication of leaves changing colour, all thoughts turned to the West Course at Wentworth and the gathering of the world's best players to contest the World Matchplay Championship. After the Open, the World Matchplay was the event of the year. Why this event never became recognised as the fourth major championship escapes me.

What is clear is that the World Matchplay Championship is not what it was. I find myself misty-eyed recalling the Piccadilly at its greatest and all of the other sponsors who succeeded and precipitated this great event's decline. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Sandy Lyle, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo are but a few who paraded their prowess at the peak of their game in the head-to-head tussle of the Matchplay - a great tournament in the game's purest form. Many came and many failed to conquer, like Tiger Woods, who was thumped by his best friend, Mark O'Meara. Oh yes, those were the days.

Woods came but once, doubtless because O'Meara, as Open Champion, was coming anyway and the Tiger, being young and foolish had nothing better to do that week. That he was never persuaded to come back again speaks volumes about the changing face of world golf.

Despite the fact that HSBC has taken up the sponsorship reins of this once great tournament and have put 2.5 million (pounds, not dollars) into the pot to resurrect it - Woods and his American contemporaries, far from rising to the bait, have chosen to stay at home to scratch their collective backsides. HSBC's ambitious plans to bring together the best in the world for an annual shoot-out has fallen on the stony ground of indolent indifference to the game, now a commonplace characteristic of even mediocre exponents languishing in the lucre they earn from it. Neither Woods, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, David Toms nor Davis Love could be induced by cash or persuaded by prestige.

Although the 12 who have deigned to appear are unquestionably great players, they are not likely to quicken the pulse or even stimulate interest in the general public at a time when an injection of enthusiasm is desperately needed.

The fare provided hardly amounts to a feast. Stephen Leaney meets Tim Clark in the first round with the winner meeting Ernie Els in the second. Vijay Singh and Alex Cejka will contest the opportunity to earn a second round place against Shaun Micheel. Chad Campbell will play Freddie Jacobson for the right to meet Ben Curtis in the second round, while Len Mattiace and Thomas Bjorn will meet for the right to take on Mike Weir. It may well amount to an interesting snack.

The wonderful thing about matchplay golf is that anything can happen and frequently does. Although 36 hole matches reduce the element of chance, an off day, for even the best, means curtains. But there are not likely to be any surprises this year at Wentworth and I am sure that I am not alone in being prepared to eat my hat if Singh and Els don't meet in a final in whicht Els is likely to triumph.

Very young children and the utterly naive may well ask why no Darren Clarke? Why no Pod Harrington for that matter or the born again Lee Westwood? The answer is simple although utterly incomprehensible. They simply did not collect enough points in the Majors this year. Frederick Jacobson, however, did collect enough points from finishing equal-fifth in the US Open and equal-sixth at Sandwich. Ho Hum. To date, his tournament successes have included the Omega Hong Kong Open and the Portuguese Open, hardly heady stuff. But such is the money on offer at Wentworth that a first round win could propel him into a Ryder Cup place.

It is a pity that HSBC did not retain the right to invite whosoever they wished to appear in their lucrative event for the outcome in the cash determined European Order of Merit is highly dependent upon it. Indeed, it can make or break the Ryder Cup team as well as the livelihood of great players and the future of the game in the public's perception.

Consider Sandy Lyle's situation next year. This great player, yet only 45-years of age may well find himself grovelling for sponsor invites because of the daft way that the Tour's career money list is calculated.

Because of the money on offer in very recent times, career earnings, the basis on which exemptions are calculated, can be crudely distorting. Lyle won his two Majors and numerous Tour events when players were playing for a pittance. Today, a relative professional hacker can have a good week and guarantee his place in the top-40 career earners, the cut-off for exemption - with the result that a player of Lyle's stature, who is now standing in 41st place, will be excluded.

Putting things into perspective, it is worth considering the situation 20 years ago. Then, a player finishing in the middle of the OM made between GBP 40-50K. Today, a player in 10th place will exceed £1 million in earnings for the year. A player beaten in the first round of the HSBC World Matchplay Championship will go home with over 50K. Enough said.




©    13 - OCTOBER 2003



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