Rise and fall of WGCs


 DORAL, Fla. – One can pinpoint the precise rise and fall of the World Golf Championships experiment just as surely as ShotLink can cull the good putters from the bad.

It began in October 1997 with the promise of globalized golf born of altruistic motives and misplaced optimism. It was build it and they will come stuff.

tiger phil doral
Tiger and Phil marched step for step in 2005 at Doral, before Tiger prevailed by one shot. (Getty Images)
While the end – which may be at hand or off-handily off the mark, depending on who you ask – can be traced to a glorious spring Sunday in south Florida when the cosmic tumblers aligned and even dogs and cats paused to enjoy the proceedings.

What the world wanted Doral delivered – a mano-e-mano showdown between Alpha Dog No. 1 (Tiger Woods) and Alpha Dog No. 2 (Phil Mickelson) when it mattered, on a Sunday at what was then the Ford Championship.

“2005 was like the last day at Augusta,” recalled Jim McLean, who has been fixing swings at the far end of the Doral practice tee for 20 years. “They were 15 (people) deep down both sides of No. 1. It was the most people I’d ever seen at Doral. The most I’d ever seen at a golf tournament.”

It was the day when Woods and Mickelson shared a Sunday tee time with Tour gold on the line. When the game’s best were at their best and the ending wasn’t written until Mickelson’s chip at the last hole rolled to a climactic stop.

It was the perfect storm and as one walked the property late Wednesday afternoon it seems like a lifetime ago. Less than 24 months after the Tiger-Phil Doral bout, the south Florida Tour stop was pulled into the neatly packaged WGC brand and things have never been the same.

“It’s a different tournament as a world event,” McLean said. “They want it to be a major, before it was like a South Beach party.”

Make no mistake, this week’s CA Championship offers plenty of promise – even without Woods and, as of late Wednesday, Mickelson. Solid field, respected golf course, South Beach, but it’s not the same.

David Toms was there in 2005, 45 minutes and eight strokes clear of the Woods-Mickelson show but that was close enough to get a taste of something special.

“I was playing really good and looked around and there was nobody,” Toms said. “They were all on No. 1 watching. At the time the Tour had been waiting for that showdown for a long time.”

Toms, who played his first event at Doral in 1992 and has missed whatever version of the tournament was on the calendar just four times since, has watched the event transition from “the unofficial start of the Tour season” to, well . . . something else.

“When I used to come here it was like a Sony Open feel to it,” Toms said. “I’d bring my family and really enjoy the week. It certainly has a different feel to it now.”

Which cuts to the essence of the WGC dilemma. The question is not whether the experiment – which has evolved into four events that stretch from Shanghai to south Florida – has delivered on the promise of a brave new world, but whether the four WGCs are better off with the prefix than they were without?

Doral certainly draws a consistently stronger field as a WGC, but ask any player the $1 million question and the answer is almost always the same – it’s just different.

The Bridgestone Invitational has been a Tour staple since 1962 whose list of pre-WGC winners includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman. All the WGC did for Firestone is clear room for the likes Yuji Igarashi, who I’ve been told is a household name in Nagano.

The HSBC Champions was won by Mickelson its first year in the WGC fold (2009), the same guy, by the way, who won it in 2007 before its title went alphabet soup (WGC-HSBC) and its purse through the roof.

While at Doral the local flavor has fallen victim to a Tour that, unlike Ben & Jerry’s, offers just a single option – vanilla. The international field may look good on paper, but 90 percent of the golf public couldn’t tell Soren and Anders Hansen from the Hanson Brothers of “Slap Shot” fame.

The Match Play Championship, however, may be the lone exception to the WGC rule, having technically replaced the second-tier Tucson Open, albeit on a less-than-renowned golf course located some 30 miles southwest of the middle of nowhere.

Of course, the measure of success or failure at any Tour event comes down to sponsorship dollars and this Sunday when CA’s four-year deal ends the word around campus is they plan to take their check book and go home.

Accenture recently extended its sponsorship of the Match Play through 2014, but given the company’s high-profile parting with Woods late last year it’s not a stretch to say Tim Clark’s days of taking down the world No. 1 and busting brackets in the Arizona desert have come to an end.

The WGC shingle comes with a $12 million annual price tag and for what? A field heavy on passports at venues that were just as good, if not better, before the circuit pulled its WGC eminent domain?

And what of the original WGC mission to bring the game to the four corners of the globe, but have largely found only the four corners of the continental United States? The Tour will stress that the images from Doral this week will be broadcast across the globe, thus growing interest in the game. So was last week’s Honda Classic.

Of the 34 official-money WGCs played since 1999, the first year of the experiment, six have been played outside the United States. Proponents will argue that Tour players and big sponsorship dollars don’t travel well.

“It’s certainly easier with all (the WGCs) here for us because we all live here,” said Clark, an Arizona resident by way of South Africa. “But I felt they should move around. It would mean a lot to any country. Look at what the (2003) Presidents Cup did for golf down in South Africa.”
Woods’ cameo at last year’s Australian Open is perhaps the most compelling reason for Tour types to open the atlas. Galleries lined every hole at Kingston Heath and, more importantly, interest in the game peaked.

“Since Tiger came to Australia last year tee times at public courses are through the roof,” said Dale Lynch, a U.S.-based Australian swing coach. “It was huge because golf in Australia had been in decline since Norman went into decline.”

It was the great WGC promise, an idea with unlimited potential co-opted by the low-hanging fruit of great events turned into good events. It is the Achilles’ heel of the WGC project, and in many ways it all started at Doral five years ago when a great clash marked the beginning to the end.