European Tour Becoming Less European

CRANS MONTANA, SWITZERLAND l The golfers are never in better humour than during the week of the Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre. The venue is the prettiest of them all, with Paul Casey describing the view from the seventh tee as “even better than the one from Peter Dawson’s office at St Andrews.”
To a man, the players love their Tour but they are understandably worried about the extent to which events are disappearing. The Czech Open, the Castillo Masters, the Madrid Open, Majorca and now the Andalucia Masters are in the past. At the same time, the players have their fingers crossed about the Portugal Open and Singapore Open.
True, two events have been announced for South Africa at the end of this year but a couple of limited-field fixtures are hardly enough to allay the growing unease. Thomas Bjorn is the chairman of the Players’ Committee and the most loyal spokesperson and supporter the Tour will ever have. He, though, does not begin to pretend that all is well as the circuit heads inexorably towards the Middle and Far East.
“We have good friends around the world and we are able to build a schedule which still works but we need more tournaments in Europe,” said the Dane. “I know as well as anyone that these are extremely tough times, but how is it that other sports (in fairness not all) are surviving and all we are doing is losing things? If it goes on like this, we have got to start asking, ‘What is happening to the European Tour?.’”
The players can understand how the Spanish tournaments have gone a-missing. Firstly, they are no longer bound by contracts attached to the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama and, secondly, there is no money in the country. Again, bizarre though this might sound, the new Minister for Tourism in Andalucia has absolutely no interest in golf. Though the Tour had a degree of sponsorship and a venue for the Andalucia Masters, the said Minister stopped responding to e-mails. He did not want to know.
While the Spanish players are ruing the loss of their handsome quota of tournament weeks, the UK contingent is still struggling to believe that there is only one stopping-point in England.
Simon Dyson, who maintains that the European Tour still beats its rivals as a place to play, says he will “chug along” wherever the tournaments take him. But he finds it “weird” that the situation is as it is in his homeland. “Surely,” he suggests, “there are possibilities in England’s North West or on the South coast?
“What gets me is that we are playing our part to the full. We mingle with our sponsors more than the players in any other sports. Whether it’s pro-ams or dinners, we’re there, doing our bit.”
Paul Casey, a committee member, says that the membership is desperate for a road-map. “What we need,” he said, “is a five-year plan and a ten-year plan, the kind of things companies would usually be able to deliver.”
Meanwhile, Casey is not alone in worrying about those players who, having paid and played their way through qualifying school, are struggling to get starts.
Keith Waters, the Tour’s International Director of Operations, was mildly exasperated when word reached him about the pockets of discontent, even if he agreed at least with some of what the players were saying.
“We are losing tournaments,” he said, “but losing tournaments is hardly a new phenomenon. We’ve lost 10 in the last three years and it’s only because we’ve been replacing them that the players are not as aware of that figure as they might otherwise have been.”
He nods at the suggestion that several full-field events have been replaced with limited-field affairs before pointing to how they can hardly turn away such tournaments when they marry with sponsors’ requirements.
Waters insists that long-term plans were discussed at the last meeting between the Tour and the Players’ Committee: “We are doing all we can to maintain a strong base in Europe and to make it grow but, in spite of our best efforts, the European swing is getting shorter at the moment and we can’t bank on things getting better any time soon.
“The trouble is that all the international companies are telling us that they have budgets for the emerging markets but not for Europe.”
He confirmed that the Tour is talking to prospective sponsors in the UK and explained, here, that dates were proving to be the biggest stumbling block.
As for the unhappy lot of some of the qualifying school graduates, Waters said that officialdom is “incredibly conscious” of the need to get them a better deal. “We are thinking of reducing the figure of 115 exempt players to make room for more qualifiers, though it’s going to be difficult to hit on the right balance.”
Back to the players, whose immediate fear it is that the excitement surrounding the forthcoming Ryder Cup might take officialdom’s eye off the ball on the home front.


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