Charl Schwartzel continued to mine the rich vein of form that saw him win last week’s Joburg Open by firing nine birdies en route to an eight-under 64 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. The big news of the day, however, wasn’t the South African’s serene passage through the field, but Lee Westwood’s confirmation that he won’t be playing in this year’s Player’s Championship.
Wary of Westwood’s ambivalence towards the tournament, the PGA Tour had moved to accommodate the Englishman as early as last November, altering it’s rules regarding the playing privileges of non-members to accord with his preference. It turns out, though, that Westwood still isn’t tempted. Today he went as far as to imply that his decision was as much a partisan statement of loyalty as it was a question of scheduling:
“After the two opening World Golf Championships I would bracket our (European Tour) PGA Championship in May as just as important as it offers exemption for anybody in the world’s top 50 to play… I don’t see many of them (Americans) wanting to take up that offer. So you can’t really please everyone, can you?”
While it will be difficult for many in the US media to see this as anything other than a slightly vindictive ‘diss’ of the PGA Tour as a whole, maybe even a full-on, two-fingered salute of the American golfing public, from a European perspective, it’s a fairly exhilerating act of public defiance.
It’s not quite Westwood’s Rosa Parks moment, but it is an attempt by the current World Number One to use the leverage afforded by his position to boost the status of the European Tour.
For too many years, the continent’s finest players have been drawn, moth-like, to the extravagant riches waiting on the other side of the Atlantic, to the point where the ‘weakness’ of the European Tour became something a self-fulfilling proposition. A feedback loop of weak fields and weak investment guaranteed that the European Tour became synonymous with decline or, at best, stagnation.
Finally, however, the Tour’s hard-won colonial victories in the Middle East and Asia have begun to pay massive dividends— ie. enormous showcase events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and China, among others. And with the battle for political power reaching something of a tipping point, Westwood’s comments today seem a thinly-veiled attempt to increase the sense of inevitability behind the European Tour’s bid for parity with it’s sister tour Stateside.
So, don’t be too hard on Westie. For those who remember a European Tour led by charismatic, major-winning stars (and Nick Faldo), Westwood’s ‘snub’, as it will undoubtedly be labelled, is more a rousing appeal to nostalgia and forgotten pride than it is a slap in Tim Finchem’s face. But, political stance aside, what’s The Player’s Championship without the World Number One?