Europe keeps building on biggest year

The U.S. PGA Tour continues to shortchange the one World Golf

Championship held outside the United States by only offering a

three-year exemption to the winner if he is a member of the

American-based tour.

One person who didn’t seem the least bit bothered was Francesco

Molinari, the Italian who won the HSBC Champions.

”I’m a European Tour member,” Molinari said with a shrug.

”I’m proud to be a European Tour golfer, and it’s a great moment

for European golf, and I’m really happy to give my contribution to

that. Honestly, going to the States, it’s not really part of my

plans at the moment. I’m happy to consider it a European Tour

win.”

At the trophy presentation in near darkness on the 18th green at

Sheshan International, Molinari was announced as the winner of a

$1.2 million check.

That translates to just over 850,000 euros, enough to move him

to No. 4 in the Race to Dubai, giving him an outside chance

depending on how he fares this week in Singapore.

It used to be that beating the best field in golf, whether it

was a major or a World Golf Championship, was essentially a free

pass to the PGA Tour. Now it’s a matter of whether Europeans want

to go, much less need to.

Lee Westwood, the new No. 1 in the world ranking, tried a full

PGA Tour schedule about five years ago and it didn’t work for him.

He added tournaments just to meet the minimum requirement of 15

events, and found himself going through the motions at times.

Westwood played Las Vegas in 2005 to meet his number.

”That’s why I don’t join anymore,” Westwood said.

PGA champion Martin Kaymer, eligible for a five-year exemption

by winning a major, is said to be leaning against PGA Tour

membership, even though his girlfriend is from Arizona and the

German spent much of his time there before he became a veritable

star.

The way this year has gone for Europe, its players can find

plenty of competition at home.

Europeans did so well on the PGA Tour this year, with seven

players winning eight times, that British agent Chubby Chandler

quipped midway through the season that the Tournament of Champions

in Kapalua ”is going to be like a European Tour event.”

One benefit for Europe when it began its ”Race to Dubai” bonus

program was attracting international stars, and it got the interest

of Geoff Ogilvy, Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini and

several others. It was easy to meet the minimum of 12 tournaments

because seven could be knocked through majors and WGCs before the

Dubai World Championship.

Last month, however, the European Tour tournament committee

decided to increase the minimum to 13 events. In a separate matter,

it denied Kim a medical exemption despite the American missing

three months after surgery on his thumb.

To some, the increase was seen as Europe closing its door to

outsiders. For others, it was good business. Europe needs its

members to play more at home to accommodate sponsors in a tough

economy.

David Howell, who is on the committee but made it clear he was

not speaking on behalf of it, wondered whether Europe needed U.S.

tour members to make its circuit stronger.

For every rising star on the PGA Tour – Dustin Johnson, Hunter

Mahan, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler or Kim – Europe has just as many in

Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Alvaro Quiros, the Molinari brothers

(Francesco and Edoardo) and Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old

Italian who two weeks ago became Europe’s youngest winner.

Molinari is eligible for Kapalua, but not PGA Tour membership.

He cannot even apply the money toward a tour card through

non-member earnings if they were equal to No. 125 on the money

list.

A big reason for the PGA Tour not treating the HSBC Champions

equal to the other WGCs is that less than half of the 78-man field

has tour membership. At the other stroke-play WGCs in America, PGA

Tour members accounted for at least two-thirds of the field.

”I can understand if we weren’t playing a strong field,” Ben

Crane said. ”But I think if you can win a tournament like this –

whoever you are – it doesn’t matter. You’ve done something pretty

special. I think this should count for everything.”

Molinari turned in one of the best performances of the year.

Playing in the final group the last two days, he matched the low

round Saturday and Sunday with a 5-under 67. Molinari beat Westwood

by one shot, and he beat everyone else by at least 10.

Europe swept the top five spots at Sheshan International, and 11

of the top 12 on the leaderboard were European Tour members. The

exception was Tiger Woods.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem did not sound interested in

counting this WGC like the others, from a three-year exemption to

the winner to the money being official. He cited the HSBC Champions

being too late in the PGA Tour season, and there’s merit to that.

Europe still has three events remaining, ending with its version of

a Tour Championship.

”To add an event that late in the year at the end of the season

is just not something we’re prepared to do on the money list,”

Finchem said after the ceremony. ”On the other side of the coin,

I’m not sure it makes any difference. Our theory was players would

come and support the event because it has a great purse, a lot of

world ranking points. And that’s been the case.

”I don’t think changing it will change the field.”

It makes no difference to Molinari. He won a World Golf

Championship against a strong field. He did something special in

what has become an extraordinary year for European golf.