Once upon a time, in a land not so far away once private jets became routinely available, there was a golfing king earning a princely sum for playing the game. But he wanted more.
King Norman was his name and he had an idea.
Rather than the game’s royalty competing against the proletariat in their native lands, each of these kings would compete in smaller, elite fields against only themselves. There would be greater riches at stake for fewer players, keeping the kings fat and happy with their increasing opulence while also serving the desires of the townsfolk who enjoyed watching the kings more than the others.
It was the ultimate win-win scenario underlying a rich-get-richer philosophy.
Not for the governors of golf, though. These commissioners and chief executives saw their vision of the game being challenged and so they stormed the castle in an attempt to halt such proceedings. And it worked. By threatening membership status of the kings, they quashed King Norman’s formation of a World Tour, keeping the status quo intact.
Well, sort of.
Not long afterward, the commissioners and chief executives began understanding the need to bring the game’s elite together more often – but under their rules, not somebody else’s. And so the World Golf Championships were implemented, a way for the best of the best to compete against each other for greater riches. It was essentially King Norman’s idea without King Norman’s stamp of approval.
Since then, the game has gradually grown on the highest level to become a genuine World Tour, if not officially in name, then certainly in its ideology.
Major championships and WGC events are all co-sanctioned, meaning players can increase status on any major tour by faring well in these tournaments. Many of the world’s best – the kings of the game – are now members of various tours, globetrotting and pond-hopping with ease throughout the year.
Tiger Woods was never an official member of the European Tour, but earned enough money to have topped its Order of Merit on six separate occasions. Last year, Luke Donald became the first player to officially win both money titles, thanks to finishes of first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth in tournaments that were co-sanctioned by the PGA and Euro circuits.
Perhaps the greatest proof of a unified tour, though, occurred this season, as a player barely old enough to swing a club when Greg Norman’s idea was first hatched has followed Donald as the second consecutive winner of both major money titles, accomplishing the feat in his own unique way.
By all accounts, Rory McIlroy enjoyed a magnificent PGA Tour campaign. He won four titles, including the PGA Championship, Stateside – more than any other player – and finished in the top 10 in 10 of the 15 events he played in this country, all of which makes him the odds-on favorite to capture Player of the Year honors.
His record in all other parts of the world this year isn’t quite so exceptional. In seven European Tour starts outside of the United States – and yes, if that sounds like a surprisingly small number, you’re right – he owns two runner-up results and three other top-10s. Nothing to sneeze at until you consider what he’s already wrought on that tour.
With two events left on his schedule, McIlroy has already clinched the European money title. He’s done so without ever winning a single tournament that was endemic to the circuit, which sounds like an answer to the riddle: How can a golfer win despite never winning?
If that’s not enough, had McIlroy been an official member of either the Asian Tour or Sunshine Tour, he would have clinched those money titles, too.
Much like consternation over the trials and tribulations of the Official World Golf Ranking, there’s no one to blame here. It’s simple math. Nobody awarded the 23-year-old such lofty honors because they like his smile or they’re trying to woo him to a certain equipment manufacturer. He achieved them because when the numbers were tallied, his name stood above all others.
“Winning a second major already made it a fabulous season,” McIlroy said recently, “but then to follow Luke Donald in becoming No. 1 in both Europe and the States is the icing on the cake after a fabulous season. I set myself a number of ambitious goals at the start of the year, and to have ticked so many of the boxes feels great.”
Call him a paper champion and you’ll be correct – at least in the rationale that money is printed on paper. It will be interesting to see whether McIlroy’s peers agree with the statistical assertion that he is Europe’s best player this year. Branden Grace won four events unique to that tour, which in every conceivable way should trump a single victory on the remote shores of South Carolina.
The real message here, though, is that the game’s highest level has made the gradual yet swift transition to being an inclusive World Tour, with players able to attain certain honors and status thousands of miles from their home tour.
This shouldn’t be perceived as news, but the process in which Rory blitzed through the U.S. and therefore bullied his way to the top of the European standings may serve as the latest and greatest proof that an idea spawned once upon a time has come to fruition.
And for the newly crowned King McIlroy, it has a very happy ending.