News & Opinion

2nd-class shoe fits, Euros, so wear it

What was so controversial about NBC’s Paul Azinger’s comments that Europeans ‘have to win on the PGA Tour’? Nothing, unless you’re a European who rarely, if ever, wins on the PGA Tour

After a month of dry milquetoast served up by CBS, it didn’t take long for NBC to substantiate the notion that the gap between the two networks never has been wider in terms of golf coverage. The primary difference lies in the quality of the commentary. With his candid assessments on all the stumbling during the final round of the Honda Classic, Paul Azinger earned some of the finest feedback an analyst can receive: criticism from the players themselves.

Azinger wouldn’t be doing his job if he were unwilling to call out tour pros who failed to do theirs. As for the harsh truth of the matter, third place at the Honda paid $483,000, which surely softens the burden of blowing a three-stroke lead and hitting it into the water on the 18th, as Tommy Fleetwood did that Sunday.

World Golf Championships - Mexico
England’s Lee Westwood, a prolific winner on the European Tour, has won only twice in 239 starts on the PGA Tour. Does that mean that the European Tour is not as competitive as the PGA Tour? Not if you’re Westwood.

Azinger’s unfiltered insight has only made NBC stronger since the departure of the uncompromising Johnny Miller. It also drew prickly post-Honda responses from veteran Englishmen Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, who used their Twitter accounts to express resentment over Azinger’s depiction of the European Tour as an inferior league.

“Please do not condescend or disrespect our tour and our players like that,” Poulter admonished. “We have slapped your [bleep] around in the Ryder Cup for so long. I know you captained a win [in 2008], but seriously, that was embarrassing.”

Excuse me? Poulter was referring to Azinger’s comments as embarrassing, not Europe’s performance at Valhalla that week, which is a strange way to interpret the thoughts of a guy who gets paid handsomely by NBC to voice his opinion. “These guys know you can win all you want on that European Tour and the international game, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” were Azinger’s precise words. “This is where they want to be. They want to prove they can win at this level.”

Harmless? Yes. Inaccurate? Not even close. In fact, Westwood and Poulter are perfect examples of what Azinger is talking about. The ultimate big fish in a little pond, Westwood has made 239 career starts on the PGA Tour and won two of them. His 25 victories on the Euro circuit are mighty impressive, but he remains majorless, with his 47th birthday just six weeks away.

“I think Paul sometimes thinks he has to be controversial to be relevant,” said Westwood, who added, “One minute, he walks down the range wishing you good luck before you play; the next, he’s condescending to the tour you play on and disrespects the tournaments you’ve won around the world.”

Controversial? Condescending? Westwood has the same number of U.S. wins as Nick Taylor in the equivalent of 12 full seasons of duty. If the shoe fits, go ahead and stuff it into your mouth.

Ian Poulter 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational
Ian Poulter

Unlike Bay Hill Invitational champion Tyrrell Hatton, a relative newcomer to the PGA Tour, Poulter has held full-time status in America since 2005. To have won three times in 275 events does not earn anyone an exemption on the laws of common sense, much less a foreign golfer who has piled up $25 million in earnings while toiling in this country. Not only does Poulter rarely win over here, but he rarely factors. He has managed just 48 top-10 finishes in those 15 seasons, which makes his Ryder Cup brilliance only all the more remarkable.

Speaking of which, spare me the theory that Europe’s dominance in the biennial matches is an apt reflection of the strength and depth of its tour. Nine of the 12 members of the 2018 team play a majority of their golf in the United States, which makes Poulter’s Ryder Cup dig even sillier. As good as the Euros have been at slapping Uncle Sam’s bleep over the past 20 years, the lopsided nature of the series has as much to do with America’s inexplicable inability to rise to the occasion.

Tiger Woods last won a match in 2010. He’s 0-7-1 in two appearances since and 13-21-3 overall, worse than Phil Mickelson’s career mark of 18-22-7. When you can’t count on the two best players of the era to produce, your ship is halfway sunk before it hits water. Fleetwood, meanwhile, used his Ryder Cup debut to stake a claim as the next great Yankee killer. For all the noise he has made at big tournaments over the past two years, however, he still hasn’t won a thing over here.

Paul Casey is a 14-time winner in 306 starts in Europe. He has three victories in 269 tries on the PGA Tour. Colin Montgomerie (31 Euro titles) made the World Golf Hall of Fame despite going 0-for-142 in the Land of Opportunity. All of these guys are excellent players, but against the deepest fields on earth competing for the largest purses in the game, the results aren’t even close to what they achieved back on their native tour.

Not only was Azinger right, but he might have understated his case just a skosh. There’s a first time for everything. At least, that’s what Tommy Fleetwood is hoping.

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