As I watched the CIMB Classic in Malaysia this weekend, a flood of memories hit me. I recalled the trips that I had made to Kuala Lumpur when I was living in Southeast Asia, and I know all too well the heat and humidity that brought winner Nick Watney’s caddie to his knees. Other than having to play in the world’s largest outdoor sauna, the scoring conditions were ideal and the leaderboard showed it. When you combine a relatively gettable course with soft greens and the lift, clean and place rule, you get daily course records and players flirting with 59 like it was the last girl in the bar.
Watney’s victory also reminded me of how the worm has really turned for him in 2012. Going into the FedEx Cup, Watney had as many missed cuts as he had top-10 finishes (three of each). But he’s had a fourth quarter that would make Eli Manning proud, winning the Barclays in August and now the CIMB. He will be considered a strong contender for a major championship in 2013.
The other memory that I had was of Greg Norman and a little idea that he had in 1994. A that time Norman was riding high, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and arguably the most charismatic figure in the game since Arnold Palmer. In an audacious test of his power and influence in the game, Norman proposed a world golf tour that would be comprised of 10 events contested by the world’s best golfers and carried to the world by the media empire fellow Aussie Rupert Murdoch. Business people hailed the idea as a potential savior for a sport perceived as old, homogenous and beholden to locations that have no sex appeal (where exactly are the Quad Cities?). At PGA Tour headquarters, Norman’s suggestion was about as welcome as a Baby Ruth in a swimming pool. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem not only declared war against the potential competition for dollars, he seemed to light into Norman personally. But it didn’t take long before Finchem came up with a similar idea, the World Golf Championships.
Fast forward to 2012, and you see the top names in the sport competing on multiple tours in places like Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore and China for millions of dollars in appearance fees and purses. Major corporate sponsors like BMW and Rolex are more than willing to shell out the dollars necessary to get their names associated with Tiger and Rory, names that will help them sell in the most lucrative segment of the booming economies of the East. And rather than reject the trend, the PGA Tour has embraced it, co-sponsoring events with the Asian Tour. As with the recent co-opt of the Canadian Tour, this could be the step in the Tour’s colonization of the golf world.
In the long run, the trend towards international competition works for the players and for the fans. The players get to play in exotic places, make boatloads of cash and exercise their role as ambassadors of the game globally. For the fans, they get a chance to be entertained and inspired by the best players in the world. Who knows which 4-year old in Shenzhen will one day be wearing a green jacket at a Masters where Phil Mickelson is hitting the ceremonial first shot? And U.S. fans get to see that there is good young talent everywhere. It was great to see guys like Jbe’ (“Can I buy a Vowel?”) Kruger shoot a 64 while playing with Tiger Woods in the opening rounds of the CIMB. The guy looks like he is more suited for the Kentucky Derby than the U.S. Open, but he can play and U.S. crowds would love him.
The world is getting smaller and golf is definitely casting a longer shadow over it.