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Sign 'o the times: PGA Tour not the destination it used to be

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AKRON, Ohio – There was a time when Martin Kaymer couldn’t get to America fast enough.

First came the inspiration from Tiger Woods’ incomparable 2000 season, when he won three straight majors among his 10 titles around the world. It was enough for the 15-year-old German to start dreaming of the PGA Tour, a chance to compete against Woods and the rest of the best players, to show them that he could play.

Then came a chance to go to PGA National in South Florida with his German national team.

“At that stage, I was still in school and couldn’t go,” Kaymer said Tuesday. “I said to my dad, ‘I really want to go there. Is it not possible you can take me out of school for a week or two weeks?’ He said, ‘Just keep working and you will play on the PGA Tour one year and then you will be there all year long.”’

Now that he’s a major champion, which comes with a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, Kaymer no longer is in such a hurry.

And why should he be?

Golf has changed so much over the last 10 years that America, once the ultimate destination for the best players from all corners of the globe, now is no more than an occasional detour for so many Europeans.

The World Golf Championships, such as this week’s Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, used to offer a taste of the PGA Tour with enormous prize money, impeccable conditions and a chance to compete against the best in the world.

Kaymer now gets enough of that while based in Europe.

He can play 12 times on the PGA Tour, which includes four majors and three World Golf Championships. That leaves him five other events to play, which is ample. He can still pick the best events to play in Europe and other parts of the world.

It’s a formula that appears to be working.

Kaymer, who won the PGA Championship last year and already has nine wins at age 26, stayed at No. 1 in the world earlier this year for two months. And while he lives part-time in Arizona, he has no immediate plans to join the PGA Tour.

“I can’t tell when it’s going to be,” he said. “At the moment, I like my position that I can play a little bit in Europe, a little bit in America. I play all the tournaments I want to play, so there’s no need to join only the European Tour or only the PGA Tour or both. I don’t need to join the PGA Tour.”

He is not alone. Three of the four major champions are not PGA Tour members.

The PGA Tour is not as strong without them, though it remains the strongest tour in the world, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. It’s easy to get swept up over Europeans dominating the world ranking – 11 of the top 25, including Nos. 1-2-3 – by overlooking the fact that America still attracts most of the best players from Asia, Australia, South Africa, South America and its fair share of Europeans.

That’s why it has the strongest fields each week, with about a half-dozen exceptions.

Europe, however, has more than held its own since it looked to be doomsday five years ago. It was in 2006 when the PGA Tour announced its new FedEx Cup competition, complete with $35 million in bonus money and $10 million to the winner. It also made plans to move The Players Championship to May.

European Tour chief executive George O’Grady gathered two dozen players at La Costa during the Match Play Championship in 2006 to figure out how to proceed. The message that emerged from that meeting was that the European Tour was worth fighting for.

It is more than holding its own.

The FedEx Cup has not been enticing to all. Lee Westwood, who has joined the PGA Tour a couple of times, found no point in playing a full American schedule because the bonus series is right about the time his kids are on summer vacation. U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy tried the PGA Tour last year, then decided it was too much golf at the wrong time of the season at this stage in his career.

Darren Clarke, fresh off his popular British Open win, hasn’t made up his mind about returning to America, but he said enough Tuesday to indicate that he was better off at home in Northern Ireland to spend more time with his two sons.

Clarke is 42 and has been around long enough to notice a change in the landscape of golf.

“I was a member of the PGA Tour, and I was proud to be a member of the PGA Tour, and I wanted to be a member of the PGA Tour,” he said. “Now with the way that game is on a much more global basis, the European Tour is pretty good, as well. We in Europe have got the majority of the top 10 players in the world right now. We’re pretty fortunate, and we have some players who deserve to be in those positions.”

A decade ago, Clarke figured the only way to move up in the ranking was to play more in America because that’s where all the best were playing. Now, there is ample opportunity to pick up big ranking points in Abu Dhabi, Scotland, Shanghai and Singapore.

“The necessity to be a PGA Tour member is not quite there like it used to be,” Clarke said. “A lot of guys will take up opportunities to be members, but at my stage in my career when I’m 42, do I need to join the PGA Tour again?”

Kaymer is only 26 and asking the same thing.

“I just don’t want to play tournaments because I have to play,” he said, alluding to the PGA Tour’s minimum requirement of 15 events. “If I go there, I want to play well. I want to enjoy being there. And if you travel to some countries or if you play too many tournaments, I don’t think that you can enjoy every tournament you play.”

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