News & Opinion

WGCs have run their course on PGA Tour

The World Golf Championships, conceived 2 decades ago as a showcase of elite golfers, hardly stand out these days. Besides, if WGC Mexico were so special, wouldn't Tiger Woods have played?

It wasn’t even especially a good idea at the time, more of a reaction, knee-jerk at best. But the World Golf Championships are now not even a mediocre idea and have outlived whatever usefulness they happen to have provided.

The three original WGCs were designed, at least publicly, to bring the best players in the world together more times a year and along with the major championships and the Players, would create the appearance of a world tour, which Greg Norman was boldly proposing in 1994. Ironically, another world tour – the Premier Golf League – is being proposed to disrupt global golf as we know it.

World Golf Championships - Mexico
With Japan Hideki Matsuyama among the world’s elite players, the World Golf Championships can make an appeal for more of the global game’s attention.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told his players they’d be suspended if they participated in Norman’s renegade brainchild, and they believed him. In response, Finchem turned the World Series of Golf at Firestone County Club into the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational in 1999.

To give it a semblance of a “world” event, Finchem used the umbrella of the International Federation of PGA Tours, which today includes the PGA Tour, European Tour, Sunshine Tour, Asian Tour, Japan Golf Tour and the PGA Tour of Australasia. Two of the three original events would be limited field, no cut and would consist of most of the top players in the world but would include a few token players from the minor tours.

The other tournament was the Andersen Consulting Match Play, which also became a WGC event in 1999, as did the WGC-American Express Championship. The HSBC Champions in Shanghai became the fourth WGC event in 2009.

The WGC-NEC eventually became the WGC-FedEx St. Jude. The WGC-American Express became the WGC-Mexico Championship in 2017 after being hosted at Doral in Miami for 10 years. The Match Play is now sponsored by Dell and is in Austin, Texas.

For a number of years, the WGCs were mostly a financial and critical success, thanks in large part to Tiger Woods, who won an astounding 16 of the first 32 WGCs, 18 in all, legitimizing those tournaments in the eyes of the golf world. Firestone was a worthy venue, and Woods won eight times there.

But in recent years, the WGCs exist much more for sponsors than they do for any kind of prestige from the players’ point of view. The WGC left Firestone and was awarded to Memphis and TPC Southwind because Memphis is the home to FedEx, which ponies up $70 million each year for its ubiquitous FedEx Cup. The Tour fled Doral shortly after the resort became Trump Doral and hastily landed in Mexico.

Players feel no obligation to play in the WGCs any longer, except that the money is so good. The WGC-Mexico has a $10.5 million purse and paid $1.82 million to the winner. But the notion that the WGCs are four of the most important events on golf’s calendar each year has run its course.

Now that the majors and the Players are condensed in the schedule and the FedEx Cup playoffs are practically mandatory, you start to run out of events for the world’s best to play. Therefore, the shine has long been rubbed off the WGCs. And where two of the WGCs have landed in the past couple of years has contributed greatly.

More than in any other sport, the venue in golf contributes a great deal to making a championship special. The Masters wouldn’t be the Masters if it were played in Hartford, Conn., or Jackson, Miss. The British Open wouldn’t be the same at The Belfry or The Grove. The U.S. Open belongs at courses like Winged Foot.

Which is why the WGC-Mexico is so completely out of place where it comes to the game’s biggest tournaments. The quirky Chapultepec Golf Club is not exactly a substandard course, but it’s certainly not a championship venue, either. The best thing that Justin Thomas could say about it was that it’s “interesting.”

It’s not among the top 15 courses in Mexico, according to rankings by Golf Digest, and at more than 7,800 feet above sea level, the 7,342-yard layout is effectively, because of the way the ball travels at elevation, the shortest course played on the PGA Tour all year.

Although 42 of the world’s top 50 players competed, the WGC Mexico, which was won by American Patrick Reed, is far from a special event. The Genesis Invitational two weeks ago felt much more like a prestigious tournament because nine of the top 10 players in the world were in the field, and host Riviera Country Club’s superior architecture and the nearly perfect course setup helped create such an attractive leaderboard and a compelling finish.

Increasingly, the Tour cares less about the quality and integrity of the competition and more about promoting both the brand of its sponsors and the Tour’s own brand. Grupo Salinas, the primary sponsor of the WGC Mexico – whose name is curiously not in the official title of the tournament – no doubt wanted the event held close to Mexico City, the country’s biggest population center. It was a dollars-and-cents decision, not one that was best for the game.

However, Tour players are mercenaries at heart, and for the right amount of money, they’d play in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

But believe it or not, many people who care about golf think there are more important things than money and don’t want the game they love to morph into the NBA or the NFL, where protecting and growing the brand is the primary concern. The competition is secondary, at best, and as long as the players are getting rich, they largely can be controlled and mostly will stay quiet.

The Tour should keep the four tournaments, if it wants. Make them full fields with normal purses – e.g., seven figures rather than eight – but do away with the WGC designation. Then, you’ll see how important they really are.

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