Lost In The Shuffle

May 18, 2010

At No. 17, Hunter Mahan is the highest-ranked player in the field this week.

IRVING, Texas -- The ground on which professional golf is played has been shifting, tectonic forces indelibly altering the landscape and threatening, in the name of progress, heretofore bedrock PGA Tour events.

The game has become universally more interesting, less so locally, as the HP Byron Nelson Championship here this week suggests. Five years ago, the Nelson had the top five players from the World Ranking in its field. This year, it has none of the top 10 (Hunter Mahan, at 17th, is the highest-ranked player).

Who would argue, for instance, that World Golf Championship events that bring together the game's elite on a more regular basis is not a boon to golf? Yet they're not played without a cost to rank-and-file PGA Tour events struggling for recognition in a crowded athletic marketplace.

Elite players' schedules have little room for maneuverability. They have four major championships, the Players Championship, four WGC events and four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. Toss in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and/or the Memorial (as courtesies to Palmer and Nicklaus) and maybe another high-profile tournament (the Quail Hollow Championship) and they're already at what constitutes a full schedule.

For several years, Tiger Woods was said to have been the difference between the haves and the have-nots, the tournaments that had him in their fields vs. those that didn't. That still holds, but it's more than that. It also depends on where a tournament falls on the schedule.

The Wyndham Championship, for instance, is cobbled by the fact that it's played in the wake of back-to-back tournaments of note -- the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship -- and is followed by the FedEx Cup tournaments. Elite players aren't likely to play seven tournaments in a row, leaving Wyndham as the odd one out.

Then there's once-prestigious RBC Canadian Open, which is shackled by its place in the schedule, following the British Open.

Money, meanwhile, no longer is an inducement for players who already have a surfeit of it. The Nelson, for instance, is offering $6.5 million, equaling the largest payout of the year to date (save for majors, WGC events and the Players).

An historic venue takes precedent over the size of the purse, to wit the Northern Trust Open (Riviera Country Club), the Verizon Heritage (Harbour Town Golf Links), even the Crowne Plaza Invitational (Colonial Country Club) next week.

The Nelson, played at the TPC Four Reasons Resort, has no such advantage. It is further hampered by the fact it can no longer rely on the presence of its namesake to bolster the field, as it once did. Nelson died in 2006.

It also is played opposite the BMW PGA Championship in England, the European Tour's showcase. The growing impact international players now have on the game is evident in the world ranking; international players now outnumber Americans in the top 25 nearly two to one. The BMW PGA Championship has siphoned off a healthy portion of them, five of the top-10. PGA Tour members Ernie Els, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey are entered, as is Lee Westwood, ranked No. 3 in the world.

The game has changed and has done so arguably for the better, the argument justifiably coming from bedrock tournaments that have found that history no longer has the influence it once did.