New Turkey event lures big stars, but at what price?
By John Huggan
BELEK, Turkey -- The model, one assumes, is the old World Match Play Championship devised by Mark McCormack, the founder of International Management Group. Started in 1964 with an elite field of eight players, the World Match Play was essentially an exhibition event with many frills, not the least of which was the venue. McCormack's baby "lived" at the prestigious Wentworth club just outside London for more than four decades and under a variety of sponsors before a brief hiatus and its current (albeit much lower-key) revival in Spain. And this one -- the grandly titled Turkish Airlines World Golf Final -- has a similar feel to it.
Back in '64, the first winner at Wentworth was Arnold Palmer, still at least the second-best golfer on the planet, and the general emphasis was on quality, both on and off the course. The players were pampered far beyond what was the norm at the time; they all stayed in five-star hotels downtown and were chauffeur-driven to and from the course. In so many ways, McCormack's brainchild became the model for all such events to follow.
It is one that still works, as the field, venue and purse (a cool $5.2 million) in Turkey surely illustrates. Five of the eight are ranked in the world's top-ten -- Rory McIlroy (1), Tiger Woods (2), Lee Westwood (4), Justin Rose (5) and Webb Simpson (8) -- with the three others - Matt Kuchar (14), Hunter Mahan (20) and Charl Schwartzel (30) -- all inside the top 30. Closer inspection also reveals the presence of two current major champions in McIlroy and Simpson and a total of 18 Grand Slam titles all told, albeit the vast majority of those are "owned" by one man, Woods.
Ryder Cup foes McIlroy and Woods will tee it up in Turkey. (Photo: Getty Images)
The format of the four-day event that runs from Tuesday through Friday (the weekend was off-limits as a sop to the concurrent events on the PGA and European Tours) is simple and obviously designed to keep the players on the Antalya course -- venue for both the Ladies' and Men's World Amateur Team Championships over the last two weeks. Split into two groups of four, the participants will each play three round-robin matches over Tuesday and Wednesday, with the top two players from each group advancing to Thursday's semi-finals. The final will take place on Friday.
Those are the bare details of an event that has already provoked more than a little controversy. PGA champion McIlroy, for example, reportedly pulled out of the PGA of America's "Grand Slam of Golf" in Bermuda two weeks hence because of his commitment to this event.
But the "World Golf Final" has implications wider than the game's highest-ranked player opting out of an event that has, if we're brutally honest, seen better days. Not affiliated to either the PGA Tour or the European Tour, it is not, as one would imagine, the most popular development with those in authority in either Ponte Vedra or Wentworth (although George O'Grady, chief executive of the European circuit, will have been mollified slightly by the introduction of a new "Turkish Open" on his 2013 schedule). The last thing either tour wants is to see their leading practitioners performing on far-flung and exotic stages where someone else is making money. And, as members of either -- or both -- circuits, the players do have something of an obligation not to take part in so-called "competing" events (thus the absence of play on the weekend).
So deals will surely have been done to ensure the presence of all eight in Turkey -- a nation with big ambitions to become a major player in golf over the next decade or so and, not coincidentally, to host an Olympic Games in the not-too-distant future. Woods, of course, already has a financial relationship with Turkish Airlines and is seen as a key component in the nation's Olympic ambitions.
Still, strong rumor has it that guaranteeing the presence of the 14-time major champion and the seven other PGA Tour members gathered here has come at a price. All eight have apparently undertaken to appear at least once over the next three years in the Frys.com Open, which (surprise, surprise) is taking place in California this week. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, as ever, has minimized the damage to his schedule and made the best of a situation where money was talking -- the eighth and last player here will collect $300,000, with the winner picking up $1.5 million -- and he was doomed to inevitable defeat.
As for the venue, the PGA Sultan Antalya course has the inevitable "American" look to it, although the 7,124-yard layout is the work of the European Tour's architectural department, European Golf Design. Water is a common hazard amidst the tree-lined fairways -- it is safe to say the four nephews of Uncle Sam in the field will have no trouble feeling at home.