News & Opinion

Euro Tour plays games amid bleak reality

Go ahead and laugh: the European Tour is entering the esports business. This week’s stop in Denmark not only features an actual golf tournament, but a virtual-reality competition among eight of the world’s top gamers, who will jiggle their joysticks in a match-play format for $5,000 in prize money.

Apparently, it’s the largest cash award ever at an esports/golf endeavor, which leaves me with a few questions.

If online gaming has become all the rage, what’s with the puny purse?

Doesn’t Tiger Woods spend five grand just to gas up the boat?

How much does it cost to fly to Denmark?

Is the European Tour really that desperate?

My video-game experience amounts to nothing more than an addiction to a Galaga arcade machine back in the early 1980s. When you’re waiting tables at the local Holiday Inn, stumbling through college and ingesting things you probably shouldn’t be ingesting, firing fake bullets at spaceships can be an absolute blast. Thanks to the Internet, of course, gaming has evolved exponentially over the last 35 years.

We’re talking about a massive industry with a very high ceiling. Approximately 15 million people worldwide play World Golf Tour, the same online experience that those eight gifted hermits will be battling this weekend at the Himmerland Resort in Farso. And if you think about it for longer than 15 seconds, which probably isn’t a terrific idea, you just might land on your own notion of virtual reality.

This is a peculiar but potentially profitable partnership for the European Tour. All of its best homegrown players have left to go play full-time in the United States. It realistically can claim just a handful of guys among the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, none of them higher than 25th. And for the first six months of the season, not a single tournament actually is held in Europe.

In fact, the Euros visit every continent on which golf is played except South America before arriving on somewhat familiar soil for the British Masters, one of two events still held in England. In 1995, there were five tournaments in the motherland and seven in Spain, which currently hosts just two. Corporate support has dried up to the point where the top seven European-born players compete mainly on the PGA Tour, where purses are roughly twice the size and a vast majority of the biggest events are contested.

The Race to Dubai year-end payoff doesn’t come close to matching the $10 million given to the FedEx Cup champion. Factor in travel expenses – don’t forget fuel for the private jet – and it’s no wonder that everybody who’s anybody has migrated to the Land of Uncle Sam. You could even take it a step further, as my editor did, and suggest that without the Ryder Cup, the European Tour as we know it today is basically the Web.com Tour with a lot more colorful flags.

So, yes, the Euros are a bit desperate. “[Esports] is undoubtedly an area which has huge potential,” said Richard Bunn, the tour’s head of media rights and programming. “We’ll be able to engage with audiences beyond our traditional following while creating new sponsorship opportunities for our commercial partners.”

This is customary press-release blather, but it’s also spot-on, as they say Over There. The steady decline of the European Tour is of little or no concern to most golf fans on this side of the pond. If anything, many Americans hope the exodus continues, and for as long as the Euro circuit co-sanctions the three U.S.-based majors and three WGCs held in North America, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t.

The co-sanctioning premise was supposed to help Europe retain its top performers, but it clearly has backfired. Almost everything that a top-tier player could ask for is staged in one country. Greg Norman’s world-tour concept of the mid-1990s ostensibly has come to fruition, although hardly by accident. This is precisely what Camp Ponte Vedra wanted. The money is crazy, the courses superbly groomed, the living accommodations spacious and luxurious. We even have refrigerators and air conditioners.

With all that working against them, the Euro brass must drum up creative and offbeat methods of perpetuating at least modest growth. First and foremost, however, it needs to accept the terms of golf’s competitive modern landscape. It needs to soften its eligibility requirements so that guys such as Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose don’t have to concern themselves with qualifying for their native Ryder Cup squad.

In a star-driven enterprise, you cater to the players. Otherwise, you don’t have a product. Secondly, the tour needs to shorten its season and quit trying to drive a rickety Conestoga wagon on so many foreign highways. On the wrong side of the road, no less. Go back to being the European Tour. You are what you are. Play 30-some events from April to November. And ditch the WGC affiliation. How many World Golf Championships are played in Europe, anyway?

These would be tough concessions, and of course, highly unlikely ones, but until the once-proud (and competitively powerful) European Tour comes to terms with its diminishing relevance, it will suffer to the point of sadness. That doesn’t have to happen. In this game, there’s plenty to go around for everyone, as long as you don’t look for too big of a share.

Or, for too much from eight gifted hermits in a dark room.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com