SHANGHAI – The PGA Tour continues to shortchange the one World Golf Championship held outside the United States by only offering a three-year exemption to the winner if he is a member of the American-based tour.
One person who didn’t seem the least bit bothered was Francesco Molinari, the Italian who won the HSBC Champions.
“I’m a European Tour member,” Molinari said with a shrug. “I’m proud to be a European Tour golfer, and it’s a great moment for European golf, and I’m really happy to give my contribution to that. Honestly, going to the States, it’s not really part of my plans at the moment. I’m happy to consider it a European Tour win.”
At the trophy presentation in near darkness on the 18th green at Sheshan International, Molinari was announced as the winner of a $1.2 million check.
That translates to just over 850,000 euros, enough to move him to No. 4 in the Race to Dubai, giving him an outside chance depending on how he fares this week in Singapore.
It used to be that beating the best field in golf, whether it was a major or a World Golf Championship, was essentially a free pass to the PGA Tour. Now it’s a matter of whether Europeans want to go, much less need to.
Lee Westwood, the new No. 1 in the world ranking, tried a full PGA Tour schedule about five years ago and it didn’t work for him. He added tournaments just to meet the minimum requirement of 15 events, and found himself going through the motions at times. Westwood played Las Vegas in 2005 to meet his number.
“That’s why I don’t join anymore,” Westwood said.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer, eligible for a five-year exemption by winning a major, is said to be leaning against PGA Tour membership, even though his girlfriend is from Arizona and the German spent much of his time there before he became a veritable star.
The way this year has gone for Europe, its players can find plenty of competition at home.
Europeans did so well on the PGA Tour this year, with seven players winning eight times, that British agent Chubby Chandler quipped midway through the season that the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua “is going to be like a European Tour event.”
One benefit for Europe when it began its “Race to Dubai” bonus program was attracting international stars, and it got the interest of Geoff Ogilvy, Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini and several others. It was easy to meet the minimum of 12 tournaments because seven could be knocked through majors and WGCs before the Dubai World Championship.
Last month, however, the European Tour tournament committee decided to increase the minimum to 13 events. In a separate matter, it denied Kim a medical exemption despite the American missing three months after surgery on his thumb.
To some, the increase was seen as Europe closing its door to outsiders. For others, it was good business. Europe needs its members to play more at home to accommodate sponsors in a tough economy.
David Howell, who is on the committee but made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of it, wondered whether Europe needed U.S. tour members to make its circuit stronger.
For every rising star on the PGA Tour – Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler or Kim – Europe has just as many in Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Alvaro Quiros, the Molinari brothers (Francesco and Edoardo) and Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old Italian who two weeks ago became Europe’s youngest winner.
Molinari is eligible for Kapalua, but not PGA Tour membership. He cannot even apply the money toward a tour card through non-member earnings if they were equal to No. 125 on the money list.
A big reason for the PGA Tour not treating the HSBC Champions equal to the other WGCs is that less than half of the 78-man field has tour membership. At the other stroke-play WGCs in America, PGA Tour members accounted for at least two-thirds of the field.
“I can understand if we weren’t playing a strong field,” Ben Crane said. “But I think if you can win a tournament like this – whoever you are – it doesn’t matter. You’ve done something pretty special. I think this should count for everything.”
Molinari turned in one of the best performances of the year. Playing in the final group the last two days, he matched the low round Saturday and Sunday with a 5-under 67. Molinari beat Westwood by one shot, and he beat everyone else by at least 10.
Europe swept the top five spots at Sheshan International, and 11 of the top 12 on the leaderboard were European Tour members. The exception was Tiger Woods.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem did not sound interested in counting this WGC like the others, from a three-year exemption to the winner to the money being official. He cited the HSBC Champions being too late in the PGA Tour season, and there’s merit to that. Europe still has three events remaining, ending with its version of a Tour Championship.
“To add an event that late in the year at the end of the season is just not something we’re prepared to do on the money list,” Finchem said after the ceremony. “On the other side of the coin, I’m not sure it makes any difference. Our theory was players would come and support the event because it has a great purse, a lot of world ranking points. And that’s been the case.
“I don’t think changing it will change the field.”
It makes no difference to Molinari. He won a World Golf Championship against a strong field. He did something special in what has become an extraordinary year for European golf.