Having spent the last quarter-century trumpeting The Players Championship as professional golf’s fifth major, the PGA Tour suddenly finds itself in dire need of a fiddle. Word that Englishman Lee Westwood will skip this May’s gathering at TPC Sawgrass is not the type of advance notice Camp Ponte Vedra wants to hear. The irony? If The Players really was a major, Westwood – a non-member of the U.S. tour and current world No. 1 – would show up wearing his midseason game face.
Stuck somewhere between a wanna-be and a gonna-be, The Players only recently got a kiss from the Tour’s Policy Board, which amended a rule that required Eurostuds such as Westwood to count the tournament among their 10 maximum starts. That total includes the four majors and three World Golf Championships, leaving non-members three additional starts on American soil. Logistically, it doesn’t make sense for Westwood to head home after the Masters, then return to Florida to play in one event a couple of weeks later.
He will play in the Honda Classic and Shell Houston Open to prepare for the Masters, then use his final U.S. exemption to defend his title in Memphis. The funny thing is, Westwood missed last August’s PGA Championship due to an injury, still unseated Tiger Woods as No. 1, then decided against a full-time U.S. schedule despite having that Memphis victory handed to him by Robert Garrigus in Memphis. If we didn’t know any better, you’d swear Westy doesn’t need to realign his priorities or buy a faster airplane. He just needs to extend the lease on his horseshoe.
So the Tour has to do something – call a meeting and tweak the rule, or take Chubby Chandler (Westwood’s agent) to dinner and pick up the tab, or send Westwood a Christmas card and explain later that it must have gotten lost in the mail. The most effective scenario would seem to be the first: allow non-members who win U.S. events to defend their titles without it counting against the 10. Westwood could fly back to America the week before The Players and tee it up in Charlotte, then trot down to the 'fifth major' without feeling like he’s wasting a ton of jet fuel.
To say The Players would be diminished by the absence of the game’s top-ranked golfer would be somewhat misguided. Woods missed the tournament in 2008 and barely showed up last year, but the media reverberations caused by a Westwood-less Players would quickly become annoying.
My sense is that the matter will be sorted out. Camp Ponte Vedra will tweak the rules, Westwood will show up at Sawgrass, pick up another T-2 and widen his lead in the world ranking. Nowadays, it’s not how many you win, but how often you come close.