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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Forged after a tumultuous era, World Golf Championships fade in another

Rory McIlroy said that while W.G.C. events had been “lovely to be a part of,” they had come to lack “any real meaning.”

By Alan Blinder

It was not all that long ago — Tom Kim, after all, is only 20 years old — but before Kim emerged as one of the PGA Tour’s wunderkinds-in-progress, he would watch the World Golf Championships.

“For sure, 100%,” Kim cheerfully reminisced as he clacked along this week at Austin Country Club in Texas, the site of the championships’ match play event. “There was WGC in China. There was Firestone before. You had Doral. You had this.”

Had, because once one man wins Sunday, the championships appear poised to fade away. An elite competition forged, in part, because of another era’s tumult has become a casualty of this one’s.

“Everything runs its course and has its time,” said Adam Scott, who has twice won WGC events. Barring a resuscitation, which seems improbable given the PGA Tour’s business strategy these days, the WGC’s time was 24 years.

The WGC circuit was decaying before LIV Golf, the Greg Norman-fronted league that is cumulatively showering players with hundreds of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, cleaved men’s professional golf last year. Two WGC events vanished after their 2021 iterations, and a third, always staged in China, has not been contested since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And as the PGA Tour has redesigned its model to diminish LIV’s appeal, even the Texas capital’s beloved match play competition has become vulnerable to contractual bickering and shifting priorities.

“We’ve had great events and great champions, but the business evolves and it adapts,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said this month, when the tour reinforced its decision to wager its future on “designated events” that should command elite fields and, in some cases beginning next year, be no-cut tournaments capped at 80 players or less. (LIV, whose tournaments always have 48-man fields and no cuts, responded with a wry tweet: “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future.”)

With a $20 million purse, doubled in size from five years ago, the match play competition that began Wednesday is a designated event under the 2023 model. Next year, though, it will not be on the calendar at all, winnowing the WGC to one competition. And Monahan has said it would be “difficult to foresee” when his circuit’s schedule might again include the HSBC Champions, the WGC event in China that will be the last remaining event formally existing in the series.

The Chinese tournament’s website has had few updates in recent years, and an inquiry with the event’s organizers went unanswered. HSBC, the British banking powerhouse that is the tournament’s title sponsor, declined to comment.

But the PGA Tour’s freshly calibrated distance from the Shanghai competition is fueling what looks to be an unceremonious end for the WGC, which were announced to immense fanfare in 1997, when the tour and its allies were smarting over Norman’s failed quest to start a global circuit for the sport’s finest players. The events, which debuted in 1999 with a match play event that sent some of the game’s best home after the first day, were intended to entice and reward the elite without challenging the prestige of the four major tournaments, as well as to give men’s professional golf a greater global footprint.

It worked for a spell, and five continents hosted WGC events, many of which Tiger Woods dominated. With the exception of the Chinese tournament, though, the circuit had lately been played in North America.

“The ‘world’ part of the World Golf Championships wasn’t really in there,” Rory McIlroy, the four-time major tournament winner whose WGC résumé includes a victory in the 2015 match play event, said in an interview by the practice putting green.

McIlroy, among the architects of the tour’s reimagining as Norman’s unfinished ambitions proved more fruitful this time around, said he had also worried that the WGC events had come to lack “any real meaning,” even as they had been “lovely to be a part of, nice to play in and nice to win.” The tour’s emphasis on select tournaments, many executives and top players like McIlroy believe, will lend more consequence to its season and make it a more appealing, decipherable and concentrated product that can fend off the assault by a LIV circuit bent on simplifying — its critics say diluting — professional golf.

The Austin tournament’s end will, at least for now, reduce match play opportunities on the circuits that have been aligned with the WGC. Although the Austin event — which has three days of group-stage play, followed by single-elimination rounds — has a field of only 64 players, less than half of the size of last year’s British Open, it has been larger and more accessible than other signature match play tournaments.

But given the format’s popularity, it will linger, if a little less, on the international golf scene. The Presidents Cup, Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup will remain fixtures — the Solheim will be contested in Spain in September, with the Ryder decided soon after in Italy — and more modest events, such as the International Crown women’s tournament that will be played in May, still dot the calendar.

Some players this week appeared more mournful than others about the erosion of the WGC and the decline of match play. Scott said he hoped the tour’s new system would be able to accommodate the next generation of ready-for-stardom players from around the world, as the WGC did, even as he said he was not insistent that match play be a staple.

“We don’t play much match play, so the kind of logic in me questions its place in pro golf, but also we’ve got to entertain as well, and if people like to see it and sponsors want to see it, yep, I’m up for it,” Scott said.

He grinned.

“Maybe we should have some more, get a bit more head-to-head and see if guys like each other so much after,” he offered mischievously. “The year of match play!”

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