At the dawn of the 2009 season one would have thought the PGA Tour was bound for Triple A status given the amount of handwringing going on within the fourth estate. The European Tour had recently introduced its lucrative Race to Dubai and according to many reports PGA Tour regulars were flinging themselves across the Atlantic Ocean like swallows to Capistrano.
The lure of a $10 million payout at the season-ending Dubai World Championship was enough to draw the likes of Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas, Boo Weekley and Trevor Immelman to European Tour membership. Vijay Singh and Adam Scott retained their European cards in 2009, and even Phil Mickelson was mulling an expansion of his international schedule.
Im just not ready now to commit (to full membership), Mickelson said last year in China. Im not going to rule it out for the future. I think thats where the game is growing and is heading.
European Tour members must play at least 12 events a season, including a minimum of two on Europe soil. The four majors count toward the minimum, as do the four World Golf Championships (the HSBC Championship is set to join the WGC lineup this year), but that still left players needing four more starts.
The massive payouts have prompted a number of leading stars . . . to join the European Tour . . . creating possible detours away from the PGA Tour on occasion, warned one national scribe.
Lost amid all the exodus talk was the fine print. Weekley and Kim signed on for affiliate membership, which cost more than a regular card (2,000 pounds compared to 150 pounds) but doesnt require that players participate in the 12-tournament minimum. Affiliate members can, however, qualify for the Race for Dubai by finishing in the top 60 on the Order of Merit.
In Weekleys case, that means the souths favorite son can play eight to 10 events in Europe, including this weeks Qatar Masters and the Scottish Open in July, participate in his normal 25-27 PGA Tour events and still have some free time for hunting season.
Ditto for Kim, who was disqualified from the HSBC Championship in November but still plans to play all of the WGCs and majors as well as the Malaysian Open and Johnnie Walker Classic in February.
In many ways, affiliate membership gives top PGA Tour players the best of both worlds ' schedule flexibility, access to the Dubai jackpot and appearance fees, which are not allowed on the PGA Tour.
I dont understand why anyone who can demand an appearance fee doesnt do it, said one long-time player manager. Its a perfect fit.
Affiliate membership does bring its share of challenges. If an affiliate member qualifies for the Race for Dubai he would be required to take full membership in 2010.
Players also are required to obtain a competing-event release for European Tour starts that are not co-sponsored by the PGA Tour, meaning every start that is not a major or WGC. As a general rule, Tour players are granted three releases based on their participation in 15 Tour events each year. They are granted an additional release for every five events they play above the 15-event minimum.
PGA Tour members who claim the European Tour as their home circuit are not required to have a release to participate in events played in continental Europe. But the circuit has 17 events scheduled outside of Europe this season. It is little surprise then that seven players were granted releases to play last week in Abu Dhabi and nine were issued for this weeks stop in Qatar.
Some fallout can already be felt on the PGA Tour. World Ranking points, which are based on the strength of each field, have started to skew toward Europe at certain events. The number of ranking points awarded to Zach Johnson for winning last weeks Sony Open (44) were less than those given to Paul Casey (48), who won the European Tour stop in Abu Dhabi.
Expect a similar scenario this week when the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which features five of the top 40 players in the world, is played opposite the Qatar Masters, which includes 13 of the top 40.
Despite the math, more players will likely follow Kim and Weekley across time zones and international datelines. The up side of duel membership is too compelling for players, and equipment companies that view international markets as primary growth areas. Many see the global market (see golfs push to earn a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games) as golfs answer to the current economic downturn.
No, foreign memberships, be they affiliate or otherwise, are not a threat to the PGA Tour. Insular thinking is.
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