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Original Issue

A Major Contender from Abroad

The British PGA may not equal the U.S. PGA for status, but its European star quality is unmatched
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It was one of those galvanizing moments in golf history, to be forever etched in memory: Seve Ballesteros drilling a five-iron to within three feet of the pin from the left rough on the first hole of sudden death to win last year's PGA Championship—after he had bounced his drive off a golf cart. Jubilant fans mobbed Ballesteros as soon as he holed the winning putt. Who can forget their chant—"Seve! Seve! Seve!"—and the glow of vindication on Ballesteros's face as he leaned into a microphone and said, "In some people's minds, they were thinking Seve would never come back." And then the fans crying, "No-ooooo!"

This scene is not etched in your memory? Maybe that's because Ballesteros struck his memorable five-iron a year ago next week at the British PGA Championship. Ballesteros's triumph—the capstone of his dramatic return to form after a prolonged slump—was greeted on this side of the Atlantic with a pronounced yawn and scant mention in news accounts.

No, if you remember a golf shot from the summer of 1991, it's probably one of John Daly's prodigious drives at the PGA Championship in Indianapolis—the real PGA Championship, the American one, the one recognized as a "major." Ballesteros's five-iron at Wentworth—the shot not heard 'round the world—renewed a simmering controversy about golf's major championships. Who decreed that there should be four majors, and that they should be the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the American PGA Championship? And why are three of the majors in the U.S.?

These questions come up most often during the week of the once-grand American PGA, a tournament whose prestige has been devalued by a format change (from match play to medal play in 1958), inconsistent course setups and a spate of uncharismatic winners. But challenges to the status quo also emanate regularly from Dublin, Ohio, site of the Memorial Tournament, and from Ponte Vedra, Fla., home of The Players Championship. Both of these events aspire to major status, either as a fifth major or as successor to a demoted PGA.

Viewed from Europe, these challenges seem hopelessly parochial. "It's time we had another major someplace else," says the little Welshman, Ian Woosnam, who needed a Masters win in 1991 to validate his No. 1 world ranking at the time. Poll the other top European players—Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal—and you get the same response. Says Ballesteros, who's from Spain, "Everybody thinks the British PGA is like a major championship."

The list of recent British PGA champions reads like a list of, well, of recent Masters champions. Faldo has won the tournament four times, Ballesteros twice, Woosnam and Langer once each. Recent U.S. PGA champions include Hubert Green, Bob Tway, Hal Sutton, Larry Nelson, Jeff Sluman and Wayne Grady—worthy men all, but not one of them could cash an out-of-town check without a photo I.D.

So let's ask the executive director of the PGA European Tour, Ken Schofield, which tournament he would pick as the next major. "Clearly this one," says Schofield, meaning the British PGA. "But we'd need 10 of this, wouldn't we?"

Indeed, you would. The British PGA is—and we've been holding this back, to make an argument—small. Quite small. The total grandstand capacity at Wentworth wouldn't satisfy the gallery on one hole of the British Open, yet scats go begging. For most of the week one can follow a Faldo or a Woosnam from hole to hole and always find a spot on the ropes at the next green.

Concessions? Don't look for those mammoth, file-through tents that serve the galleries at Augusta National. At Wentworth a gypsy ring of caravans does a modest business between the 8th and 11th tees, dispensing hot bacon rolls, toasted sandwiches and beefburgers with Hazlewood's Brown Sauce.

Prize money also pales in comparison to that at the American PGA. Ballesteros got $144,161 for his victory, while Daly cashed a winner's check for $230,000. Another difference is that Volvo, which underwrites the European Tour, is also the official sponsor of the British PGA. None of the four majors has a sponsor's name attached to it.

Taken as a whole, then, the Brits' presentation is quaint, charming and spectator friendly. In other words, nothing like a major. On the afternoon of last year's final round, a BBC cameraman snoozed contentedly under his camera on the 16th fairway, waiting for the network to rejoin the golf after a spell of cricket.

Why is Europe's premier golf event after the British Open so homely? Confession time: The culprit is us, as in U.S. The British PGA is not a major because its field is second-rate, and its field is second-rate because the leading U.S. players ignore it. Last year only six Americans played at Wentworth, and all six qualified as members of the European Tour. Only one American has won the British PGA—Arnold Palmer, in 1975.

The Europeans do nothing to discourage American participation. In fact, the British PGA retains 10 wild-card spots, which it would gladly give to U.S. players, who are popular overseas.

"I'll give you the definitive answer," says Schofield. "A couple of years ago International Management Group told us that Brad Faxon might want to play here. So we invited him."

That's a polite way of saying that any established American Tour player would be welcome. But Faxon, who was 81st on the 1990 American money list, declined the invitation. "It would have been hard to skip the Colonial," says Faxon.

And there's the rub. Two years ago the British PGA was held the same week in May as the Bell-South Atlanta Classic. Last year it bucked the Colonial in Fort Worth, as it will again this year. PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman insists that he does not discourage Americans from playing at Wentworth—"At that time of year I don't believe a release has ever been denied," he says.

In fact, Americans do play in Europe, especially in the fall, when players who have earned enough to secure their U.S. Tour cards for the following year go after the foreign dollar, or, more accurately, the pound, franc and deutsche mark. Mark Calcavecchia, for example, put four European events on his 1991 calendar.

But many U.S. pros find foreign travel a chore. Jet lag, foreign tongues, unfamiliar food, strange customs—who needs it? "The European players are more comfortable than the Americans with travel," says former LPGA commissioner John Laupheimer, now an executive with IMG in London. "After all, the Europeans play in a different country every week."

"We are too parochial," says Tom Watson, a five-time British Open champ. "But when you look at the money we play for here, it's hard to leave home."

The larger issue is one of fairness. American pros no longer dominate, but the U.S. golf establishment still controls the international game by having three of the majors and two of the would-be majors and by ignoring and effectively boycotting almost everything else.

The prestige accorded the American PGA Championship illustrates the point. When Grady, who's Australian, won the PGA two years ago at Shoal Creek, he became the second foreigner to win the championship in 19 years. That might seem to be a statistical aberration, given that foreign players have won seven of the last 13 Masters titles. Actually, the PGA field is heavily weighted toward Americans. For instance, in a field of 86 players at last month's Masters, 22 were foreigners, while only 23 of the 151 players at the 1991 PGA Championship were foreign.

Ask Mark James of England if he thinks the current system is fair. The 38-year-old James is a five-time Ryder Cupper who has 14 European Tour victories to his credit. But the only American major he has been invited to is the 1980 Masters. He qualified for the 1990 U.S. Open, and earned a spot in the 1990 and '91 PGAs. In effect James has been afforded one quarter the opportunity of a comparable American pro to enter the record books as the winner of a major. Says James, "I think it's a shame the American tournaments don't have a field representative of the world."

Ideally both PGAs would be deemed majors, and both would be open to the world's top golfers. But no one expects parity to come soon. As a resigned Schofield puts it, "The 50-year cycle says America will have three majors and the rest of the world will have one."

The least we can do, though, is pay attention next week as Ballesteros goes after his third PGA Championship—the other PGA, the one that TV cuts away from for cricket.

PHOTO

DAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT

Ballesteros's victory in the British PGA drew scant notice here.