Thursday, March 03, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 1st March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

The recreational game that most club golfers play is, of course, “Match Play”. You turn up on a Sunday morning and have a friendly single (or more often fourball) against other club members for a modest prize – then you repair to the nineteenth hole for a convivial post round tincture before going home to the long suffering wife. The appeal of “Match Play” is both the competitive element and the fact that if you do have one or two disastrous holes (and most golfers do) it is not the end of the world – you can always try and come back at the next and repair your loss. In professional golf, however, “Match Play” is comparatively rare with only the “World Golf Championships Match Play Championship” (played last weekend in California) and the similarly named “World Match Play Championship” (played at Wentworth in the Autumn) in the calendar. The PGA Championship used to be “Match Play” as well but it switched to four round stroke play (like the other three “Majors”) many years ago. Given that the peak for most professional golfers on both sides of the Atlantic is to play in the biennial “Ryder Cup”, which is of course also “Match Play”, it may seem surprising that this form of competition is not played more often at the top of the game.

As is so often the case in sport these days, the reason that that there are not more “Match Play” tournaments has to do with strictly commercial considerations. The TV stations that covered the “World Golf Championships” took a gamble that the Final, played on the key day of Sunday when the potential audience is at its peak, would make compelling (and, therefore profitable) television. Had the match been Tiger Woods versus VJ Singh, and had it gone to the 36th hole, then the gamble would have paid off. Unfortunately for the TV and the sponsors this year this did not happen and whilst no disrespect to David Toms and Chris DiMarco is intended, the match between these two was unlikely to rivet many to their seats in front of the TV. Indeed not only was a match between the world’s number 16 and the world’s number 18 unlikely to glue people to their screens but Toms was so dominant (winning 6 and 5) that the match was over an hour early – a disaster for the TV schedules!

It is said that today we live in a world dominated by celebrity and this is certainly true for professional golf. The value of a tournament is greatly enhanced if Tiger Woods is in the line up and that is why the appearance money that he receives far exceeds his potential earnings as a winner. The same applies, but to a much lesser extent, to Singh and to Ernie Els and a few of the rest of the golfing elite. In this week’s Dubai Desert Classic Els (twice a winner in the past) is the one really big name. The rest are either fading stars from the past (Montgomerie, Norman, O’Meara, Bjorn…) or journeymen Pros from the European Tour. This does not mean that it won’t be a compelling event - the quality of the course and the excellence of the organisation always make the Classic a truly splendid experience for spectators at the course, but the TV audiences will be small (especially in the USA). The (US) PGA Tour is unrepresented this year with the only Americans playing being defending champion Mark O’Meara (World ranking 100) and sponsors pick Ben Curtis (world ranking 137).

Ben Curtis has had a terrible time on the Tour since his astonishing win in the 2003 “Open Championship” at Royal St George’s. You do not win Majors unless you are a very good player indeed and Curtis is certainly that. But it must be humbling to be brightly in the spotlight, Open Champion and “Rookie of the Year” one minute and really to be nowhere the next. Whether the “Open” in 2003 will prove to be Curtis’s only “fifteen minutes of fame” remains to be seen. The Desert Classic is an ideal opportunity for Curtis to recover his form and prove the doubters wrong. He is away from the glare of the American media and whatever pressure he may have felt last year as always being announced on the First tee as “Open Champion” will have been removed. Good luck to him and to the rest of the competitors in what should be a great golfing week.