As one who knows the sting of being mocked for owning a pair of two-toned golf shoes with kilties, I find it strange living in a world where, all of a sudden, people seem to think golf can do no wrong. I believe golf is the greatest game, but I know that it's nowhere near the greatest sport.
Sure, 18 players won more than $1 million on the PGA Tour this year, but that's nothing compared with what the top baseball, basketball and football players make. Besides, golfers' getting flush on prize money is a recent phenomenon. Back in the '50s, the elegantly overdressed Tommy Bolt reduced the Tour pro's plight to its essence during a rain-drenched round in Houston. "I'm out here ruining a $100 pair of golf shoes, a $110 cashmere sweater and a $65 pair of pants," Bolt told the gallery. "I'm wearing more than I can win."
O.K., that was then and this is now, but the point is, golf's recent prosperity and popularity shouldn't blind us to the fact that the pro game could stand some fixing. The Tour's primary concern is that many tournaments have become irrelevant. Events in places like Coal Valley, Ill., Hartford and San Diego have long been the backbone of the Tour and vital for the rank-and-file players who, week in and week out, make up the bulk of the fields. These tournaments, though, have become nothing more than an afterthought for the world's top players. Pockets bulging with more money than they could ever spend and with little to gain from winning one of these second-tier events, guys like Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods channel their energies elsewhere.
This dynamic has made the major championships golf's glue, a role for which they were not designed. Had they been, there would have been more than four, and Ben Hogan would have played in more than one British Open.
Identifying the best golfers based on their play in only four tournaments is folly. They need to play against one another more often, and the recent formation of the World Golf Championships—three elite-field events beginning in 1999—assures that they will.
Some say the new tournaments, which have purses of $4 million each, are a ripoff of Norman's aborted attempt three years ago this week to start a world tour of eight events with predetermined fields of about 40 pros playing for first prizes in excess of $500,000. But PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem's World Championships are founded more on meritocracy than Norman's tour. Finchem's fields, which will range from 48 to 64 players, will be mostly determined either by the World Ranking, adding legitimacy to that much-maligned standard, or by membership on the latest Ryder and Presidents Cup teams.
The real attraction of the World Championships, though, and their main difference from Norman's version, is that they enhance the existing tours, particularly the U.S. Tour, instead of working against them. To qualify for the new events and to be prepared for them in February, August and November, the top pros must play more, not less, during what are normally the quiet times of the season. That should add the needed relevance to some of those weak sisters on the Tour schedule. By extension, increasing the incentive to play in official events reduces the allure of the unofficial Silly Season in November and December, which in turn helps the ailing West Coast tournaments, in January and February, attract better fields.
Suddenly, the heretofore staid world of golf is spinning very fast. As the millennium nears, the game has never had so many good, young, hungry players ready to fight it out in such a gilded arena. If a golden age is in the offing, the greatest game might yet become the greatest sport.
That's when it'll be safe to break out the kilties.