News & Opinion

Golf globalization shortchanges U.S. fans

Globalization is a word with heft. It sounds important. And the phrase global golf tour sounds exciting and maybe even a little bit sexy.

The reality of golf as a global game – our reality, anyway – should be somewhat sobering: More glitzy tournaments in other parts of the world means fewer big tournaments at home in the United States. That may be good for the players, the PGA Tour and the foreign sponsors, but it won’t necessarily be good for American golf fans. 

Out of sight, out of mind. The PGA Tour just completed a three-week Asian Swing. There was the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, the inaugural CJ Cup in South Korea and the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship in China. Without looking, tell me who won any of those tournaments. 

You probably can’t. Sure, there was football, baseball playoffs and a World Series going on, but that may not be why you didn’t notice golf. It had more to do with the location. It was on the other side of the world, and that caused you not to care that Pat Perez, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose, in chronological order, won those events.

The LPGA and the European Tour already are true global tours. The LPGA will play 18 events in the U.S. this season and 16 events elsewhere. That tour arguably is more successful now than it ever has been, just not with American fans, who may find it more difficult to root for foreign players than home-grown ones and may not be as enthralled by unfamiliar tournaments on unfamiliar courses half a world away.

The European Tour has been innovative while battling its main competitor, the PGA Tour – each tour wants the world’s best golfers to play in its events, obviously. That’s why the European Tour went global so early. Of 41 sanctioned or co-sanctioned events this season (not including the three majors played in the U.S. or the PGA Tour’s four WGC tournaments), 22 were played in Europe. The rest covered the globe, with multiple stops in South Africa (5), United Arab Emirates (3), Australia (2) and China (2), plus events in Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar and Turkey. The tour concludes next week with its grand finale in the Middle East, at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the final leg of the Race to Dubai.

How does that affect fan interest back in Europe? It’s impossible to measure. 

The tours aren’t worried about that. They’re simply going where the money is, where the sponsors are and where the game itself may have room to grow.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan met with media three weeks ago in South Korea during the CJ Cup and said, “If you follow the trail, you’ve got 3.5 million participants and 36 million rounds of golf played here and the fact that we’ve got such a rich number of players. We are putting so many resources into key international markets so we are prepared when an opportunity to expand presents itself.”

The PGA Tour’s Ty Votaw added that he was pleased with the quality of the fields that the Asian events drew and said, “We will continue to do everything we can to make sure our players support these important sponsorships.”

However, the Tour faces a familiar risk with these international events. The top players aren’t simply going to add three more tournaments to their playing schedule. Two or three appearances in Asia will come out of their playing schedule in the U.S. Remember, this is exactly what happened when the WGC events began in 1999. Those events took top players out of regular Tour stops, hurting the strengths of those fields. With four majors, four WGC events, Players Championship and four FedEx Cup playoff events, a top player is committed to 13 tournaments. That means the other 30-plus PGA Tour stops are fighting to be one of the five to eight other events a top player may play. 

On the PGA Tour, every tournament is realistically competing with every other tournament, but with these designated bigger events, it’s hardly a level playing field. 

Add two or more events in Asia to the mix that the world’s best players are “encouraged” to support and there’s even less meat left on the bones for the other tournaments to fight over.

The expectation is that in 2019, the PGA Tour season will end sooner, perhaps with the FedEx Cup finale on Labor Day weekend, in order to get out of the way of football. To do that, some current PGA Tour stops have to cease existing or move to the fall, increasing that part of the wraparound schedule. The new Asian Swing could help make that a self-fulfilling proposition. 

Whether it’s globalizing golf or just retooling the tour into a more attractive, if smaller, TV package, it’s wise to recognize that global golf has a downside. The main thing, no matter what some official spin doctor tries to tell you, is that less is not more. It’s always less.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle