For more than 50 years the dreamed of destination for any professional golfer in the world was the American PGA Tour, but times are a changin’.

Professional golf truly has become a global sport in every sense, and no longer does a golfer have to make America his home base to achieve fame and riches. The change is obvious at this week’s Players championship with the world’s No. 1 golfer, England’s Lee Westwood, and No. 6 golfer, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, among others, saying thanks but no thanks to invitations to the world’s richest full field tournament. Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa is another top player who declined an invitation.

One can only imagine how relieved the folks at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach were last Friday afternoon when Tiger Woods decided to enter The Players. No doubt Commissioner Tim Finchem was busy during the week pleading with Tiger (or his reps) to enter the Tour’s premier tournament, not that anyone would admit to such pleading.

Let me make it perfectly clear that The Players is one of the premier tournaments in all of golf. It has one of the strongest, if not the strongest, fields of any tournament in the world. (The folks at the PGA of America will tell you the PGA Championship is No. 1 when it comes to strength of field.)

Indeed, everyone in the 146-man field – with the possible exception of Senior Players champion Mark O’Meara – is capable of winning The Players. With few exceptions, those in the field have played their best golf during the last 12 months. In other words, most are at the top of their games right now.

But six of the world’s current top 50 players aren’t on the First Coast this week, most with no other reason than they chose not to play. There aren’t schedule/travel conflicts with Westwood, McIlroy and Ishikawa. McIlroy was in Charlotte last week.

The truth is they don’t need The Players or the PGA Tour as much as they used to. It isn’t panic time for the PGA Tour. There’s no conspiracy plan that I know of or even suspect. It’s simply a matter of changing times.

Ever since Arnold Palmer burst of the scene in the mid-1950s and television discovered golf, the money and fame for golfers was in America. South African Gary Player became of the first international superstar of the boom era. Others slowly began making the trek from Europe, South Africa and Australia. The true rise of pro golf becoming global started with a young Spaniard named Seve Ballesteros, considered the Arnold Palmer of Euro golfers. (Sadly, Ballesteros passed away last weekend at age 54 from a brain tumor.)

Until now, the golden age of international players was the 1990s with Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Bernhard Langer, Vijay Singh, Ian Woosman and Sandy Lyle ranking among the world’s best. They made the PGA Tour their home as the European PGA Tour struggled with small purses, bad courses and little fan support.

But the European Tour now competes with the PGA Tour for sponsor dollars. Purses have soared. Great courses dot the Euro schedule. It’s reasonable to assume some pressure was put on Westwood and McIlroy, among others, to spurn PGA Tour membership in favor of the Euro Tour. American golfers were encouraged to have dual membership. The Euro Tour’s policy of paying appearance fees, something the PGA Tour doesn’t allow, attracts more Americans than ever. Companies seeking an international audience have made endorsement deals include a more international schedule.

International players currently own all four majors. The last three The Players have been won by internationals. The world’s top three players are internationals; six of the top seven; 26 of the top 35. Most still make the American tour their home, but more and more are playing worldwide schedules, and that means skipping PGA Tour events.

It all has made selling The Players as a major championship a more difficult sale. Since former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman created what has evolved into The Players in the mid1970s, the tournament grew in stature for 30 years. Though it never achieved the status of the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship, the recognized majors, it clearly was only a notch below.

Now it is fighting to retain that status, much less improve it. This hit home for me last week while reading an article in Sports Illustrated’s special issue about The Players.

The article quotes an anonymous Tour pro as saying, “. . . The Players is totally buzzless. The players don’t talk about it at all.”

Understand the article doesn’t address the rise of the Euro Tour and the globalization of the sport. It deals strictly with The Players moving from March to May three years ago. The PGA Tour made the move so The Players wouldn’t be considered a tune up for the Masters and so it would offer a “biggie tournament” every month from April (Masters) through August (PGA Championship). The Tour also wanted to get away from the NCAA basketball tournament, reasoning it would receive more media coverage in May.

Respected SI golf writers are split on the move. Alan Shipnuck, for example, writes, “I like the rhythm of the new schedule.” John Garrity writes, “I much prefer May. It bridges the long gap between the Masters and the U.S. Open (June).”

But the anonymous pro writers, “As a player I think the old schedule was more exciting. The Players was the first big event of the year, and if it were still played in March, McIlroy and Westwood wouldn’t miss it.” Writes Gary Van Sickle opines, “Personally, I think it’s has lost some of its buzz. . .”

The bottom line is the PGA Tour is fighting to retain sponsors and grow the sport. The Players is a key event in that fight.

The Players remains a showcase event. Those who watch this week will see most of the best golfers in the world grinding for the Tour’s biggest payday and a five-year exemption. But behind the scenes, Finchem and his generals know they can’t relax. They have a fight on their hands to maintain the status quo much less enhance it.

  1. Wyman Stewart says:

    😦 Golf story # 4 on my backwards journey. Not even reading this one. Well, at least you did not cover the Royal Wedding as sports.

    How many of these guys can hit a baseball tossed at 90mph? Run for a tourchdown? Drive through a good defense to make a lay-up or dunk? OR—Be a team player? Even NASCAR has race teams. These guys can’t carry their own golf clubs.

    Oh well, SportsTalk radio doesn’t seem to be about sports anymore, either. I voted for you Lamm, but guess it didn’t count.

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