The European Tour has reason to celebrate, as long as it can avoid comparisons.
The BMW PGA Championship this week is the signature event on the European Tour schedule and will be held on a revamped West course at Wentworth that has players raving. At least before they have to put scores on their cards.
The tournament kicks off the new “Rolex Series,” the first of eight tournaments that offer $7 million in prize money ($8 million for the last one in Dubai).
These are important steps for European Tour chief Keith Pelley, the Canadian who took over the difficult task of making the tour relevant. He already has introduced two innovative formats designed to make golf faster and a lot more fun. The idea behind the Rolex Series is to make Europe more appealing to the best young players, instead of watching them follow so many others to America to chase a more lucrative life.
Realistically, these are merely baby steps.
It would be surprising if the Rolex Series made any long strides in trying to close the gap on the PGA Tour, which is as wide as the Atlantic.
While it’s a significant improvement for the European Tour to play for $7 million in prize money, that’s not even the average purse of a regular PGA Tour event. Throw out the four majors and the four World Golf Championships (and the four opposite-field events), and the average prize money on the U.S. tour is $7.06 million.
As NBC analyst Roger Maltbie so famously said watching Tiger Woods beat up on the field at the 2000 U.S. Open, it’s not a fair fight. But then, it never has been.
The great Seve Ballesteros became the first European to win the Masters in 1980, when he took a 10-shot lead into the back nine and won by four.
What gets overlooked in that benchmark victory is that he was among just four Europeans in the 91-man field. The others were Sandy Lyle, who won the Masters eight years later, Mark James and Peter McEvoy.
This year, Sergio Garcia won the Masters. He was among 28 European-born players in the 93-man field.
It doesn’t help that Garcia is playing Colonial this week on the PGA Tour (with a $6.9 million purse) instead of Europe’s flagship event. He has played Wentworth only twice in 17 years. The bigger blow was Rory McIlroy’s rib injury resurfacing two weeks ago at The Players Championship. Doctors advised he rest this week.
The brightest young star in golf is Jon Rahm of Spain, already No. 12 in the world after just 20 tournaments as a pro. He is No. 3 in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, though he has yet to play a regular European Tour event. Rahm also is playing Colonial.
Pelley chose to focus Tuesday on who was playing — Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose among them — instead of who wasn’t, which is how the PGA Tour used to talk about fields that didn’t have Woods.
Schedules are personal, especially as golf has become more global than ever. Then again, it’s really only a global sport for those born outside America. While most young Americans are more apt to travel than the previous generation — Jordan Spieth in Australia, Dustin Johnson in Asia, Patrick Reed practically anywhere — they don’t have to fulfill membership duties on more than one tour.
The Rolex Series will make that easier.
The meat of the series is two weeks after the U.S. Open, with successive weeks of the French Open, the Irish Open and the Scottish Open. Those are sure to attract stronger fields, although they might have done that even without a bump in prize money. Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson are regulars at the Scottish Open to get acclimated to links golf ahead of the British Open. McIlroy is the host of the Irish Open. The course at the French Open will host the Ryder Cup next year.
The other four tournaments — Italian Open, Turkish Airlines Open, Nedbank Challenge and DP World Tour Championship in Dubai — don’t face strong opposition from the PGA Tour because they are held in October and November.
Baby steps. But important steps.
Even with so many Europeans making America their home base, there is no shortage of pride when it comes to their home tour. They were livid a decade ago when the PGA Tour, wanting to promote its developmental Nationwide Tour, encouraged players to refer to it as the “second-best tour in the world.” That became a rallying cry for Europeans at the 2006 Ryder Cup, even if they didn’t need one. They romped to an 18½-9½ victory.
“Hopefully, we won’t get asked if the Nationwide Tour is the second-best tour in the world anymore,” Garcia said that day.
“Behind Europe,” Luke Donald followed as the team erupted in laughter.
The Ryder Cup is the financial lifeline for the European Tour, and an immense source of pride when Europe wins. But that’s all it measures.
The strength — and the money — is in America. And that’s where the best players will continue to go.