Well, here we are again. Every few years it seems some U.S. golfing professional/personality blithely asserts that the U.S. PGA Tour is without peer. Full stop. This invariably gets under the skin of Europeans who, to be fair, have dominated for 25 years the event created specifically to settle this argument: the Ryder Cup. They and their tour have also claimed roughly half the major championships since the turn of the century.
As golf spats go, it’s run of the mill. There are decidedly more important things to ponder these days. But here’s the problem: The Euros have a point while Paul Azinger, this year’s jingoist rock-thrower designate, doesn’t.
And besides: With the Tour on hiatus and the Masters postponed, you’ve got something better to ponder?
All this came to a head, again, late in final round of the Honda Classic, two Sundays ago, March 1. Azinger, himself a major winner and former Ryder Cup captain, assessed on NBC the mindset of Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who had the chance to birdie the 72nd hole and force a playoff.
“These guys know you can win all you like on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” Zinger intoned from on high, in his booth, adding that Lee Westwood was another Englishman on the leaderboard with lots of worldwide wins (44 to be exact) but just two in the U.S. “They know that and I think Tommy knows that. It puts a bit of pressure on Tommy. But this is where they want to be. They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level.”
Lookit: Azinger’s job, or part of it, is to ratchet up the stakes on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also his job to pimp the U.S. PGA Tour (more on that later).
But the Euro response was swift, pointed and, it must be said, pretty spot on. Ian Poulter tweeted: “Paul please do not condescend or disrespect the @EuropeanTour and our players like that. We have slapped your arse in the Ryder Cup for so long.” Westwood himself called the comments “disrespectful”. The winning Ryder Cup captain from 2018, Dane Thomas Bjorn, called them “at best ignorant; at worst, arrogant.” Rory McIlroy, who, like Poulter, now makes his home in Florida, had this to say: “His comments were a little nationalistic,” McIlroy said.
Poulter’s fellow Englishman, Tyrell Hatton, put a bow around all of them one week later by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Azinger, like many members and backers of the PGA Tour through the years, continues to confuse the wealth of a tour with the overall player-quality of a tour. Prize money is greater at U.S. PGA Tour events — this reality is what lures players like McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Poulter, Hatton and Fleetwood to play so many events here, to maintain homes here, to even join the U.S. PGA Tour in order to compete for all that money.
But bigger purses and better-heeled corporate sponsors do not make the preponderance of U.S. pros any better than those competing for smaller purses on the European Tour. That was mere theory in the 1990s, but it’s more or less an established fact today — one American golfers and commentators more or less refuse to acknowledge. For whatever reason, the European Union is turning out as many if not more, better competitive golfers today than the United States. The Ryder Cup proves it. The major championships prove it. For his part, young Tommy Fleetwood — with his 5 European Tour wins, his breakout performance at the 2018 Ryder Cup, his top 10 world ranking — fairly well embodies it.
The American golf establishment has coped with this stark reality through years via an amalgam of rotating narratives. They all begin Our tour is clearly superior — richer and deeper in talent — but… From there the Ryder Cup excuses proliferate: 1) The Euros have the edge because they just happen to be better at match play; 2) The Euros fancy themselves underdogs and take great pleasure in taking the U.S. down a notch — greater pleasure, apparently, than Americans would in re-establishing their superiority; 3) Euros care more about the Ryder Cup whereas Americans care more about major titles; and 4) Euros are more of a “team”, whereas we Americans are 12 individuals who are far more comfortable competing as individuals, at medal play.
That last one is the closest the U.S. players ever get to actual introspection. It’s also another way of throwing their captain under the bus, which the U.S. team does every time it loses a Ryder Cup.
The problem is, none of these arguments bear up to scrutiny.
Since 1995, the Euros have indeed utterly dominated the Ryder Cup, winning 9 times and losing just thrice (including one downright freakish defeat at The Country Club in 1999; they could well be 10-2). They have not lost on home soil since 1993, nearly 30 years ago. The Euros may well be more familiar with match play, having played that format more often growing up. But this didn’t seem to matter over the first 60 years of Ryder Cup competition, which the U.S. utterly dominated.
Major championship results don’t support these narratives either. Or rather, if U.S. golfers value majors more than Ryder Cup results, this enthusiasm has not resulted in anything resembling the dominance we’d expect from such a clearly superior Tour. There have been 80 major championships conducted since 1999. Americans have won 43 of them. Three quarters of those events were contested on what U.S. players would consider home soil, mind you… Remove Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won 18 majors between them during this stretch, and the tally is US 25, Euro/International 37. Surely, other Americans may have won those tournaments, had Tiger and Phil faltered, but this much is clear: The U.S. record has been extraordinarily bolstered by 2 individuals — something we don’t expect from a tour with such superior depth of talent.
Why is it so hard for the U.S. to accept European Tour parity — a parity that, on account of the Ryder Cup, would appear to do the Euros a mild disservice? The European Union comprises 28 countries and accounts for some 505 million people. All the great, young South African professionals (and many Australasians) go there first — further bolstering European Tour cred (and talent). The U.S. has a bit more than 300 million residents and golf participation here has been stagnant for 25 years. Why exactly do we think we should win more Ryder Cups than we lose?
Fact is, we are nearly 30 years into a period of total European dominance at the Ryder Cup, and — if we accept that Tiger Woods’ period of dominance was singular, and is now more or less curtailed — the major winners over this period indicate at best a dead heat.
For his part, Azinger had this to say after the March 1 dust-up.
“I wasn’t trying to be malicious. I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone. But professional golfers choke for two things: cash and prestige. And the PGA Tour has the most of both.”
I like Azinger. He’s clever and isn’t afraid to stir the pot. But his explanation here misses so many marks. Golf is unique: It’s not unusual for a guy ranked 225 in the world to go out and win a tournament that features 20 of the top 30 players in the world. Indeed, it happens all the time. The promising young Korean Im Sung-Jae beat Fleetwood and Westwood at this year’s Honda — but that doesn’t mean either Englishman choked. The remainder of the field didn’t choke. That’s just not the way golf works, and Azinger should know that, better than anyone on the NBC broadcast team. Last year, American journeyman Keith Mitchell won the Honda. Did everyone who failed to beat him choke because so much money and prestige were on the line? Hardly.
I do think that Azinger honestly believes the U.S. Tour is tops in the world; its current crop of 25- to 35-year-old players is pretty darned good — maybe they’ll turn this Ryder Cup thing around (can’t wait for Whistling Straits in September). But he also got caught here nakedly promoting the PGA Tour, which is something TV commentators are paid to do. Peter Kostis, the former CBS analyst, explained this dynamic on last week’s No Laying Up podcast. He described his once running afoul of TV and Tour bigwigs upon asking a rookie winner what it felt like to earn a place in The Masters field.
“I got a phone call the next day from New York [CBS Headquarters],” Kostis said. “They’d got a phone call from the commissioner who was upset that I didn’t say first off that he had won 500 FedEx Cup points! And he didn’t want me talking about majors.”
Kostis lost his job with CBS at the end of 2019, so he does have an axe to grind. But it’s impossible to listen to him and not think of Azinger. “The Tour wants more control over what’s being said,” Kostis continued. “They want more cheerleaders on the telecast, people who will — quote unquote — promote the Tour’s product.”