MELBOURNE, Australia, AFP
Golf’s top names have turned their backs on this week’s US$5 million World Match Play golf championship, casting doubt over the decision to begin a U.S. PGA Tour season outside the United States for the first time. Just 13 of the top 30 will now play at Melbourne’s Metropolitan Golf Club from January 3-7 and only four of the top 10 — Ernie Els, Hal Sutton, Vijay Singh and Tom Lehman. While it remains the strongest field ever assembled in Australia, the absence of Tiger Woods, David Duval, Davis Love, Colin Montgomerie and defending champion Darren Clarke takes some gloss off the event. Others who have decided to skip the tournament include Greg Norman, Nick Price, Paul Azinger and Sergio Garcia. Woods was never going to make the trip but Clarke, Duval, Love and Fred Couples had originally stated their intention of playing. “If it was a strokeplay event I’d probably go,” said Woods earlier this year. “But it’s match play. You go down there and you’ve got to leave probably the 29th or 30th and that’s my birthday (Dec 30) and I don’t want to do that. It’s just not my thing.” Only Clarke offered an apology: “It’s a major disappointment as I was really looking forward to defending my title, but in the circumstances I need to be with my family.” He didn’t elaborate. Saddled with a difficult date the field was always going to suffer a backlash and is now the weakest in a World Golf Championship event since it began two years ago. Players are reluctant to travel to Australia (20 hours from the U.S. and longer from Europe) over the Christmas/New Year period just to be eliminated in the early stages, despite first round losers pocketing almost A$40,000. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has admitted he gave the tournament a terrible date and apologised for it. “I don’t think it was a mistake to go to Australia,” he told The Times recently. “I think it might have been a mistake to go to Australia when we go to Australia. “Players have so many different options these days that when we start to take away the very limited holiday they have it creates difficulties.” Despite the no-shows the multi-national field is still dotted with prolific winners, like major title holders Americans Justin Leonard and Craig Stadler, Scot Paul Lawrie and Germany’s Bernhard Langer who will vie for the US$1 million first prize. The money is considered “official” on each player’s home Tour and all contestants will earn World Golf Ranking points. Els, runner-up in three majors during 2000, will start favourite ahead of Singh.
Barring last minute withdrawls, the South African is paired with Greg Kraft in the first round. Kraft has a current world ranking of 104, showing how far down the rankings organisers have had to go to fill the 64-man field. Fijian Singh will take on world No.102 Kevin Sutherland with Hutton playing local favourite Nick O’Hern. The inaugural World Match Play Championship was won by Jeff Maggert in 1999. Clarke won in 2000 when he beat Woods.
Both events were played at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California in late February and on those occasions Japan’s Jumbo Osaki was the only eligible player who chose not to play. The tournament, sanctioned and organised by the International Federation of PGA Tours, is part of a World Championship of Golf series introduced in 1999 to combat the threat of a breakaway world tour. Woods’ wins champion-of-the-year award in top French sports daily Tiger Woods has set a new record — going where no golfer has gone before — winning the title of champion of the year in France’s top sports daily. Tuesday editions of “L’Equipe” newspaper will feature Woods as the “Champion of Champions for 2000.” It marks the first time the annual award has gone to a golfer since the newspaper began printing in 1946, Editor in Chief Jerome Bureau told The Associated Press. A 25-member panel of senior journalists selected the winner. “The vote wasn’t even close,” Bureau said. “There was a clear majority for Tiger.” Tuesday’s L’Equipe will feature a 4,000-word profile on Woods, who has never competed as a professional on French soil. Previous winners of the L’Equipe award include swimmer Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo.