Column: Golf in a different place when Match Play began

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The number of countries at the Match Play is the same as when this concept of World Golf Championships began, except for the flags.

The 17 countries at the first Match Play in 1999 included Paraguay and the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Fiji. Now we have Chile and Norway, Colombia and Belgium.

And still circling the waters 23 years later — in a far different capacity — is a Shark.

“How much of a sense of vindication,” began the question to Greg Norman, one of the 64 players at La Costa in 1999. More than the No. 28 seed that week, he was considered the brainchild of a global series designed to bring together the best from around the world.

It was a fair question then, and in some respects it can be played forward to Austin Country Club, where the top 64 players available from the world ranking are gathered this week.

Would they be here if not for Norman?

It was Norman who tried to push the idea of a World Golf Tour some five years earlier, a series of eight tournaments for the 30 top players (plus 10 exemptions) competing against each other for bigger money than the PGA Tour had to offer.

Players were forced to choose. Norman didn’t have as many commitments from the top players as he thought. And then Arnold Palmer slammed the door on the idea when he spoke at a player meeting and said the PGA Tour had served him and Jack Nicklaus just fine. It all sounds familiar, except for the last part.

Two years after Norman’s original plan died, something called the International Federation of PGA Tours was founded, and from that came the World Golf Championships.

Norman was the last player to arrive at La Costa in 1999, and when he sauntered through the media center, he stopped to gaze at the brackets for the inaugural Match Play Championship.

“I’m just glad I could make the field,” he said. And while there was a sense of vindication, Norman seemed satisfied that at least one goal was met.

“At the end of the day, I think it is good for the game of golf,” Norman said in 1999. “It is necessary for the game of golf because there is enough great players now in a global basis that we do really need to see players playing against each other on more of a consistent basis.”

That was then.

Norman is still part of the picture, ambitious as ever, challenging the establishment, now equipped with a lot more than his stature of having spent 331 weeks at No. 1 in the world.

He has the backing of the Public Investment Fund, a seemingly endless supply of Saudi money, with hopes of luring top players and running a global tour the way he thinks it should operate (and no doubt making his own handsome profit along the way).

That would suggest something is wrong with the PGA Tour at a time when the sport would seem to have momentum on its side.

The latest media rights deal that began this year has led to another spike in prize money. All six continents where golf is played are represented in the world’s top 20. Rory McIlroy, all of 32, is the oldest player in the top 10. And they compete against each other all the time.

To look back at the start of these World Golf Championships is to consider what golf looked like then and now.

That 64-man field at La Costa had 14 players who were not PGA Tour members, a group that included Jose Maria Olazabal, Shigeki Maruyama and the late Eduardo Romero, all of whom reached the quarterfinals that week.

This year, only five players are not PGA Tour members — Takumi Kanaya, Richard Bland, Thomas Pieters, Min Woo Lee and Robert MacIntyre. Most of them would like to be.

The PGA Tour has gone from being the strongest tour to the ultimate destination for players from all corners of the globe. Norman should get credit for giving it the nudge, though the rapid growth doesn’t happen without Tiger Woods.

Even if the Match Play is the final WGC left on the schedule — that depends on whether the PGA Tour wants to return to China amid all the outrage over countries with horrid records on human rights — the best play together all the time because they are on the same tour.

So the landscape has changed. And so have Norman’s motives.

It’s hard to believe Norman’s objectives are to create more opportunities for the best players to compete against each other because they already do.

When he released an eight-tournament schedule last week, he said he wanted golf to grow and players to have additional opportunities. “I believe players will increasingly make progress in achieving their right to play where they want,” he said.

This is not about growing the game. This is not about playing against the best. The top 10 players — it goes deeper than that — have indicated they would stick with the PGA Tour because that’s the best competition golf offers at the moment.

And this is not about golf being more appealing through a team concept. Team golf is the Ryder Cup, wildly successful because it’s played once every two years with no prize money at all.

This is about money, a chance to earn more for doing less. Whoever wins one of Norman’s new tournaments without the best players will get $4 million. That’s nearly twice as much as whoever makes it through seven matches in five days in Austin against the top players in golf.

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More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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