Big week in Europe as tour tries to narrow U.S. gap

By Doug FergusonMay 24, 2017, 12:45 pm

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.

BMW PGA Championship: Articles, photos and videos

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 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 18 ½ - 9 ½ 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.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)