AKRON, OHIO | When the PGA Tour launched its “These Guys Are Good” campaign nearly five years ago, it was supposed to be a positive message about the most competitive field in sports. But are the young, U.S.-born golfers getting demoralized in such a cutthroat environment?
Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington believes so.
“The strength of the U.S. Tour doesn’t help grow young players,” Harrington said before teeing it up at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “The PGA Tour is not a breeding ground.”
More like a slaughterhouse.
Going into Bridgestone, 11 of the last 15 PGA Tour events had been won by international players, as have six of the last nine majors. Back-to-back foreign champs (Harrington in 2008 and Y.E. Yang last year) also have claimed the PGA Championship, which tees off Aug. 12 at Whistling Straits. With 50 foreign players entered in regular Tour events every week, Harrington said that’s 50 fewer spots for the Americans.
“And those 50 players are the cream of the crop … the very best of the best. So it’s reducing the opportunities even more,” he said.
Add in the nine combined wins Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have averaged each of the last five years, and the odds get even slimmer for the rest of the Yanks.
The Irish-born Harrington, now 38, estimated he won 20 times before he started playing in the States full-time. The PGA Tour media guide shows he had a dozen official wins by 2005 – his first year as a fully exempt Tour player. He already had won the Irish Open, the Volvo Masters and Irish PGA. And he had titles in Brazil, Spain, Scotland, Hong Kong and Germany. Even when he didn’t win, he was usually in contention, including six second-place finishes alone in 2001.
“A good season over here for a young player might (include being) in contention three or four times, and (winning) once, whereas a good player in Europe (will get) in contention 12 times, and win two, maybe three times,” Harrington said. “And those 12 times in contention, he’s going to learn a lot about himself, and that will help him grow as a player.”
Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of communications and international affairs, questioned whether the facts bear out Harrington’s theory.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, winning on the PGA Tour is difficult,” Votaw said.
But he pointed to several examples where young U.S. players had early success despite a lack of experience globally. He said Anthony Kim needed just 37 tournaments before winning his first PGA Tour title. Dustin Johnson needed 27, and has now won three times. Sean O’Hair won after just 17 tries. And J.B. Holmes pulled off the feat in just his fifth PGA Tour stop.
Votaw then contrasted that with several top Europeans: Paul Casey needed 76 tournaments before he won on Tour; Ian Poulter 102; and Justin Rose 161.
Though seven of the 11 first-time winners on the PGA Tour this year have been international, it took the four U.S. champs 6.2 years on average to win compared with 7.1 years for the foreign-born players.
“I’m not trying to disparage what Padraig said,” Votaw said. “But no matter where you come from, no matter what your background, or experience, it’s difficult to win on the PGA Tour.”
That Europeans have had such success in a Ryder Cup year only has focused more attention on the issue, Votaw suggested, and perhaps kicked off the verbal volleying. Graeme McDowell, a first-time winner who brought the U.S. Open trophy back to his native Northern Ireland in June, believes golf simply is cyclical.
“I really just think that European golf is having a very purple patch right now for sure,” said McDowell, who attended college in the U.S. at Alabama-Birmingham, turned pro in 2002 and joined the PGA Tour as a special Temporary Member in 2009. “I think we’ve seen it coming with the likes of your Poulters, Roses, Caseys, Westwoods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald … the list kind of goes on.”
But, he added, there is something to be said for familiarity.
“Talking to the older guys, they got very few opportunities to come out here and play golf,” McDowell said. “Nowadays, with the WGC events and the exemption categories into the majors and the TPC, Memorial, Wachovia, we get so much opportunity, we get more comfortable with the players and the courses.”
While Harrington insisted it isn’t really a U.S. tour anymore, Votaw said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We welcome the best players in the world, with open arms,” he said.
Right or wrong, once those arms are open, it’s tough to pull back.