July 7, 2008

The WD Epidemic

Open qualifying withdrawls should bring a stiff penalty

Recently I talked to the USGA's David Fay about the mass withdrawal of European Tour players from the U.S. Open's international qualifying tournament at Walton Heath in England. Fay professed to be nonplused at what has become something of an annual event, one that was repeated last week in Wisconsin when as many as 25 PGA Tour players withdrew from the U.S.-based British Open qualifier at the 11th hour.

"I want to know what the players are thinking," said Fay. "Why are they entering in the first place? Has something happened? Or are we doing something wrong?" The answer to that last question is simple: The USGA and their R&A counterparts have made it too simple and/or cheap for pros to enter golf's two most important championships. When that is the case, there's no downside to withdrawing.

Here's what typically happens: At the start of every year, agent Brian Marchbank sits down with the European Tour players he works for (such as Stephen Gallacher and Alastair Forsyth) and maps out a rough schedule for each of them. There are usually 10 tournaments they will "definitely" play; 10 in which they will "probably" compete; and 10 that are "interchangeable." By the end of the season, most end up playing about 25 or 26 events.

Marchbank, himself a former European Tour player, then does what every agent does and makes a "blanket entry" for all of his clients into one of the 30 tournaments on his list, from definites to interchangeables. This process includes the U.S. and British Opens, the only difference being that, for those two, an actual form has to be filled out and players not already exempt are signed up for qualifiers as much as six months in advance.

But half a year later, plans change and, judging by what has occurred over the last month or so, problems arise. There are reasons why they skip the qualifier: They win an event. They struggle to make cuts. Something unexpected happens in their personal lives. As Marchbank says, "Every client's schedule is constantly evolving."

Which is fine. Withdrawing at the last minute from a European Tour event -- or one on the PGA Tour -- is routine; it happens every week, often many times. No one really cares unless a marquee name is involved. But, for reasons involving the status of the events in question, the two Opens are different. When large numbers of players at the last minute pull out of specially organized qualifiers on both sides of the Atlantic, important people in blue blazers get upset. It is seen as somewhat disrespectful to the game and its peerless etiquette.

So what can be done? The players are, as Marchbank illustrated, simply following what has become the norm within their pampered little worlds. Understandably, they like the convenience of the "blanket entry" system and can well afford to take the minor financial hit that comes with even a late withdrawal. The punishment, such as it is, hardly fits what many believe to be a more serious crime.

The solution? Both Opens need to introduce a multi-tiered entry-fee system whereby tour players are charged a sum they may think twice about relinquishing so easily. Let's start at, say, $10,000 and see how they like them apples.