The move to May seemed mindless in retrospect. TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course has certainly flourished outside of the perpetual March rain shadow and The Players Championship no longer serves as an “unofficial” Masters media day.
The move to May did not transform The Players into the “fifth major” – there are only four Grand Slam events until the players, no one else, decide otherwise – but it was an unmitigated upgrade. At least it was until Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy decided to make it a “bye” week on their 2011 schedules.
Whatever their motivations, Westwood and McIlroy have, at the least, exposed a flaw in the May Players, as well as a concerning byproduct of an ever-increasing global game.
As former PGA Tour members who forfeited their cards, Westwood and McIlroy, Nos. 1 and 8 in the world, respectively, are limited to 10 U.S. starts plus The Players, a last-minute deviation that failed to lure the two stars back to TPC Sawgrass this spring.
That’s down from the normal 12 exemptions most non-Tour members are allowed and although circuit officials say the regulation was not intended to be punitive it sure felt like a swat on the wrist. And The Players move to May is no longer the no-brainer it was originally thought to be.
“Playing the TPC in May puts it in the meat of Europe's schedule, with only one week between it and the BMW PGA, the most important tournament on the European Tour,” one long-time player's manager said.
But then a congested calendar is only a symptom of the greater ailment, at least for players looking to play both tours full time.
“Playing (the PGA Tour minimum) 15 events in the States and 13 in Europe is a big ask,” Justin Rose said last week at Torrey Pines. “The European Tour doesn’t make it easy for me to play so I think (the Tour) needs to stick to your guns.”
Rose should know, he did it as successfully as any in 2007 and has the SkyMiles to prove it. Four years ago the Englishman bounced across the Atlantic Ocean to play both tours, won the European Order of Merit and finished 16th in FedEx Cup points in just 22 total events thanks to co-sanctioned stops like the World Golf Championships and majors.
But since then the European Tour minimum has been raised from 11 to 13 and players have learned that to be competitive in the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, unlike college football, the regular season matters.
Balancing a two-tour schedule is not impossible, but neither is it conducive to Transatlantic success which may be the most important lesson learned from the Westwood-McIlroy Players miss.
“I'm not troubled by it. I'm disappointed that they're not playing, but I'm not troubled by it,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said last week. “My only message to those guys is you're always welcome, and we'd love to have you back.”
Finchem may publically “welcome” Westwood, et al, but his words don’t necessarily dovetail with Tour policy. Even the circuits’ Qualifying School Tournaments have conflicting dates that make earning a card on both almost impossible.
Whether Westwood and McIlroy’s Sawgrass snub is a one-off event or the seeds of a larger problem remains to be seen, but even an aberration, at least one that includes the current world No. 1, is concerning.
Last week Finchem was asked what was stopping the Tour from exempting all top-10 players from any rules that would limit the number of Tour events they can play, a move that was supported by many long-time observers who pointed out it’s in the entire Tour’s best interest to have the best possible fields.
“The rules that we have as it relates to how many (events) a player has to play to be a voting member, 15. How many can you play if you're not a member? How many sponsor exemptions can you accept as a non-member? And all those rules are something that we look at every year. Isn't any right or wrong to it,” Finchem said.
“We're not going to try to juggle the rules to try to make this right now as a result of this. It's a long-term thing. We'll analyze it from a long-term standpoint.”
And the long view is certainly on Finchem’s side considering that even without Westwood and McIlroy The Players will still sport one of the year’s deepest fields. It may, however, ignore an emerging trend at the game’s highest levels.
Six of the top 10 players in the current World Ranking are from Europe and emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East are making it increasingly unlikely a top player will be content plying his trade exclusively in the “Lower 48.” Even Steve Stricker, a confirmed homebody, is starting his season on the other side of the globe this week at the Qatar Masters and Phil Mickelson kicked off 2011 two weeks ago in Dhabi.
“There is so much to balance in world golf and we need to appreciate there are many good places to play,” said Rose, a newly named member of the Tour’s 16-member Player Advisory Council.
Unfortunately for the Tour, May’s Players doesn’t count itself on that list, at least not for Westwood and McIlroy. It’s a reality that may make another drastic move, not on a calendar but in policy, necessary.