This week’s British Masters goes ahead thanks to Tommy Fleetwood’s generosity rather than the PGA and European Tours actually putting their heads together
There were reasons to celebrate Tommy Fleetwood’s status within the commonly self-serving world of top-level sport even before the altruistic touch that will come to the fore this week.
As Sky Sports dropped sponsorship of the British Masters last year, an all-too-rare professional event in England looked like dropping off the European Tour’s schedule. Fleetwood, who has quite enough on his plate when keeping competitive company with the finest players in golf, stepped forward to host the tournament. Betfred duly joined in with a sponsorship deal. Fleetwood has admitted his keenly felt pride at staging the event at Hillside, a links so close to his childhood home of Southport.
For how long the British Masters can cling on remains open to debate. This week, the gulf between the European Tour and its equivalent in the United States looks as glaring as ever. A £3m prize pot at Hillside compares unfavourably with $7.9m purse at the Byron Nelson in Dallas as the competitions run in tandem.
Two of Europe’s most recently victorious Ryder Cup players, Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, will tee up in Merseyside. The same number – Thorbjørn Olesen and Henrik Stenson – will be found in Texas. It hardly improves the European Tour’s lustre that its present Ryder Cup captain, Padraig Harrington, is in the Byron Nelson field. So, too, are Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed as eyes flick towards next week’s US PGA Championship.
That the top players in the world would rather a week off or at least avoid an inevitably testing British links experience immediately before the brutality of the USPGA at Bethpage Black is hardly a shock. Yet this points towards the bigger picture, whereby competing tours mean an unsatisfactory model.
Paul McGinley will soon be placed in a similar situation to Fleetwood. McGinley stepped forward to host the Irish Open, which falls before its Scottish equivalent and the subsequent Open Championship at Royal Portrush in July.
With players generally unwilling to feature for three weeks in a row at such a key juncture, Scotland will claim by far the superior field. With Lahinch an outstanding Irish course and $7m in prizes on offer, McGinley is entitled to ask why he bothered. This tournament is merely another symptom of, not remotely a cause for, what is an unhealthy and one-sided rivalry.
It is at best a curious marketing scenario which seeks sponsorship for golf tournaments without guarantees of which players will actually join the field. As the European and PGA Tours compete for the best individuals on any given week – and majors controlled by separate entities again – golf’s product suffers. There is no single narrative as easy to follow as would, of course, be the case if golf’s elite operated under one umbrella.
The PGA Tour retains by far the strongest cast lists, which won’t change any time soon. Its chief executive Keith Pelley’s faith in the Rolex Series has seen $49m diverted towards seven tournaments even before the lucrative season finale in Dubai, but the impact on fields has been negligible.
The extent to which this world revolves around appearance fees was clearly illustrated early this year when Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Sergio García and Koepka made the otherwise crazy move to join the European Tour’s inaugural visit to Saudi Arabia. As distasteful as it may be to some, had Pelley broken up the overall Rolex sum in a manner whereby appearance fees accounted for a hefty chunk of the overall pot, the world’s best might have been swayed towards more regular visits to Europe. Beyond that, it is tricky to foresee what Pelley can do. The horse bolted some time ago.
As it stands the likes of Rose, García, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari and Paul Casey retain a link to the European Tour which meets the four events per season membership criterion, but little else. Scheduling complexities – including the understandable need for an off season – and a desire to play against the best whenever possible permit no alternative.
All of those players know removing themselves from the European Tour, if on many levels sensible, would trigger a public relations backlash which is hardly worth the bother.
The Ryder Cup, selected on the basis of European Tour membership, is the carrot used to keep alliances intact. In the 21st century, that the best players of US and European origin can’t simply be picked for the biennial joust without fulfilling diary commitments is farcical. In France last year the makeup of the triumphant European team was such that they were more likely to meet on a Floridian coffee run as Oxford Street, which made not an iota of difference to the dynamic.
At Hillside, as at Lahinch, European golf will be showcased in a manner which will hopefully reflect positively on Fleetwood and McGinley’s commitment. That the tournaments find themselves grasping for prominence owes plenty to a golf landscape which must surely look more seriously towards a united front.