Forget the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Burning of Washington. The fiercest American-European conflict, or at least the most recent, happened in Palm Beach Gardens last weekend.
Tommy Fleetwood carried a one-stroke lead into the final round of the Honda Classic, the Englishman aiming for his first PGA Tour victory. It was a prominent storyline that Paul Azinger was keen to convey. Only the NBC analyst injected commentary that instigated a deluge of debate and criticism.
“A lot of pressure here, you’re trying to prove to everybody that you’ve got what it takes. These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour or in the international game and all that but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” Azinger said.
It was a slight, unprovoked, but if it stood alone, might have met minimal push back. But Azinger continued.
“[Lee] Westwood took offense to that when asked about that on Saturday, he’s got two wins on the PGA Tour and he said he’d won 44 times around the world. But it’s not the PGA Tour. And they know that, and Tommy knows that and it puts a little bit of pressure on Tommy, this is where they want to be. They want to prove that they can win at this level particularly on this golf course. Even some of the obscure names that have won here, like a Mark Wilson and you think, Man, Mark Wilson won at PGA National.”
There are some lines that men cannot cross. Apparently in golf, that line is Mark Wilson.
Let us preface by saying golf analysts are known to err on the side of caution when it comes to player commentary; in that regard, kudos to Azinger for speaking his truth. But it was a truth that others – chiefly, but not exclusively, the European community – could not abide. Ian Poulter went to town on Azinger, calling him jingoistic and scolding him for his condescension and disrespect to the European Tour and its players. Westwood dismissed the remarks, as did Thomas Bjorn. Gonzalo Fernández-Castano ridiculed Azinger’s competency while Mark Fulcher, Francesco Molinari’s caddie, offered a slice of “humble pie”.
We’d offer writer and social reaction – as well as the American reaction to the reaction – but this is a family website. It was volcanic activity that puts Krakatoa to shame.
To be fair, while Azinger’s tone and cadence were measured, his comments felt unnecessarily acidic. Trying to belittle the European Tour to make his case isn’t right. That doesn’t mean Azinger was wrong.
Working as a public figure means words, statements and actions will be misinterpreted or reshaped, and Azinger’s lack of subtly did him no favours. But he did not pan the merits of international golfers or claim Wilson is a better player than Fleetwood, a five-time winner on the European Tour. A look at the PGA Tour’s diversity in nationality attests to that, and anyone who’s watched Fleetwood knows the guy can play. (Although a shoutout to Wilson, who had to appreciate the unexpected air time.)
The heart of Azinger’s argument was simply that it’s harder to win on the PGA Tour, a sentiment that shouldn’t be considered incendiary.
Using the Official World Golf Ranking as a barometer for field strength is a slippery slope, especially since stats guru Mark Broadie has pointed out its bias towards the PGA Tour. However, analytics site Golf Data shows that European Tour events, on the whole, are weaker than their PGA Tour brethren. In fact, out of Fleetwood’s five Old World wins only one would have been better than the weaker-than-usual Honda Classic field. Even that, the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, is equivalent to a “lower-tiered” PGA Tour event, according to Golf Data. It is a position that isn’t new; a 2017 study by Golf Data found on average players performed 0.95 shots better relative to the field on the European Tour than on the PGA Tour, which accumulates to approximately four shots per event. The depth simply isn’t there.
This is not to demean the European Tour, or those who play on (or cover or watch) it. It has its own magic and allure, boasting a handful of flagship events that are world-class affairs. It’s also easy to chalk up the European golf sector as a sensitive bunch, but fans, no matter the sport, are provincial. That’s part of the contract: pick your team, defend it to the death. Even if, deep down, you know you’re on the losing side.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is hard, damn hard, to win a golf tournament, no matter the location or circuit. Conversely, to suggest the quality of the European Tour is close to rivalling the PGA Tour is more offline than Fleetwood’s 3-wood on the Honda’s final hole. On Saturday Luke Donald said, “I’d say overall it’s a little harder [on the PGA Tour]. I think the fields are deeper here.” Fleetwood himself called the PGA Tour “another level of what you’re used to”.
Or take it from the man who the European Tour wishes was its face, Rory McIlroy.
“The ultimate goal is here [the United States]. The European Tour is a stepping stone. That’s the truth,” McIlroy said at the 2019 Tournament of Champions. “The European Tour is a stepping stone. That’s the way it is.
“It’s so one-sided. You can talk all you want about these bigger events in Europe, but you can go to America and play for more money and more ranking points. I think as well with the world ranking points, everyone out here, all of their contracts with sponsors, it’s all about world ranking points. If players are getting paid more and earning more world ranking points, why would you play over there?”
It wasn’t the first instance McIlroy had made such comments, stating in 2018 that the strongest fields are in America. “If I want to continue to contend in the Majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do,” McIlroy said at the time. Speaking of Majors, perhaps it’s no coincidence that only two Europeans have won the Masters this century, and only four have captured the US Open since 1970.
Maybe that’s why Azinger didn’t back down from his comments on Monday. He told Golfweek that he wasn’t trying to be malicious; nevertheless, he clarified that “professional golfers choke for two things: cash and prestige. And the PGA Tour has the most of both”.
The European contingent can reignite the Revolution all it wants. But on that front, there is no dispute.