October 27, 2009

Critical Juncture

A possible Rory McIlroy jump to the PGA Tour is just one of the challenges the European Tour faces

Losing Rory McIlroy to the PGA Tour would be more of a symbolic blow than anything else.

Losing Rory McIlroy to the PGA Tour would be more of a symbolic blow than anything else.

There's a lot going on at Wentworth right now, even if the Volvo World Match Play Championship, a fall fixture at the Berkshire club from 1964 through 2007, has decamped to Southern Spain this week. What started as a £1.5m project to transform putting surfaces so bad that names like Harrington and Poulter have been routinely skipping the European Tour's "flagship event," the BMW PGA Championship, has become a £3m total revamp (overseen by Ernie Els) of the West Course, the famous "Burma Road."

But there is every chance that the screeching and grinding of bulldozers might not be the loudest sounds emanating from Wentworth over the next few days and weeks. That accolade will surely belong to the sigh of relief exhaled by those occupying the European Tour offices adjacent to the clubhouse should rising star Rory McIlroy eventually decide to forego the chance to take up his 2010 PGA Tour card. If the young Irishman concludes that his burgeoning career is best served by a European base for at least another 12 months it would represent the best news for an increasingly beleaguered circuit since the multi-million pound/euro/dollar "Race to Dubai" was announced more than a year ago.

Either way, in practical terms at least, Mcilroy's decision won't make that much difference to his relationship with the European Tour. He already plays a dozen or so times on the PGA Tour as a non-member and accepting his card would add only three more tournaments to his annual commitment. Still, such a move would represent a pretty significant symbolic blow to executive director George O'Grady at a time when his schedule for 2010 currently has more holes than the Mission Hills resort in China; and the prize money for the "R2D" has just been cut by 25 percent. Europe's headman has never needed his top boys more than he does right now.

Indeed, there are those who feel that O'Grady has -- credit crunch or not -- missed a trick when it comes to at least tweaking the dominance enjoyed by the PGA Tour and, perhaps even more importantly, giving his members more opportunities to play.

"The financial crisis gave the European Tour a perfect chance to get together with other tours around the world," contends Andrew 'Chubby' Chandler, managing director of International Sports Management, whose clients include McIlroy, Els, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. "When everybody was struggling, that was the time to have a go as a global partnership. There were gaps in the schedule.

"For example, at this time of year, the Japanese events have only 100-strong fields. Extend that to 120 and include about 40 Europeans and you have good news all round. In contrast, it does seem like not a lot of thought has gone into what is going to happen towards the end of this season.

"I know some guys are feeling a bit letdown. The season goes very flat very quickly for some players. People like David Horsey, who won the Challenge Tour money list last year. Last week in Spain looks as if it will be his last start of the season. I hate to see young lads like him deprived of the opportunity to compete. I can live with someone losing a card if he doesn't play well enough. What I can't abide is when they don't even get to tee up."

It isn't all doom and gloom, of course, as Chandler is quick to acknowledge. For the European Tour, the arrival of the FedEx Cup and a shorter PGA Tour season brings with it a chance for the Old World circuit to shine.

"What is going to happen in future -- and it is already starting to show -- is that the European Tour is going to be very strong from the middle of September onwards," says the former Brazilian Open champion. "The last eight-to-ten weeks of the season are going to be terrific. That was the intention of course. So, judged on that, the Race to Dubai has been a massive success. Look at the recent Portugal Masters. Lee Westwood earned 46 world-ranking points for winning there, which shows the strength of the field.

"There are also going to be significant opportunities at other times. Between the U.S. Open and the Open is one such period. In fact, from the BMW PGA Championship at the end of May through to the Irish Open two weeks after the Open is a really good stretch next year. So we're talking, end-of-May, June, July.

"I could add in the three-week Middle East swing (Dubai-Qatar-Abu Dhabi) in January-February. They are nice events. But the money isn't quite big enough to attract everybody. Not yet anyway. Some of the U.S.-based Europeans will play but you won't get the Americans, not in any great numbers."

Also attracting some attention on the eastern shore of the pond is the seemingly significant fact that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is soon to spend as many as 18 days touring Asia. Not surprisingly given such a lengthy commitment, speculation is already rife that the wee man from Washington is considering his own forays into foreign fairways. Then again, Chandler for one is not worried that such an eventuality will actually come about. Not any time soon anyway.

"I don't think Finchem is ever going to get his members to go abroad and support expansion," he says. "He's doing the right thing, but I just don't see it happening. Take Korea, where I went with Rory earlier this year. If Finchem arranged a co-sanctioned event there, he'd get maybe five percent of his players showing up. Nothing has changed in that respect. Americans are wary of going to what they see as "difficult" countries. They don't view it like we do. I see going to Korea as part of Rory's education and a chance to spread and promote his brand. But most Americans tend not to see it that way."

All of which is another obvious clue as to whether or not McIlroy will be playing FedEx Cup golf in 2010. Still precociously young at 20, with a steady girlfriend at university and a self-confessed preference for life at home in Belfast, the Dubai Desert Classic winner has time on his side. And, for the moment at least it would seem, a world to conquer outside America.