European Tour pushes players to homeland events

Rory McIlroy, who holds European Tour membership, during the Deutsche Bank Championship in the PGA Tour's 2013 FedEx Cup.

Rory McIlroy, who holds European Tour membership, during the Deutsche Bank Championship in the PGA Tour's 2013 FedEx Cup.

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The European Tour raised the ante for membership, prodding players to compete in their home country – or else.

In an effort to appeal to sponsors, the tour approved an “encouragement incentive” for players to commit to at least one native event. If not, the mandatory minimum number of tournaments for membership jumps from 13 to 15. The move comes just one year after the tour, fighting an outflow of talent to the U.S., raised the tournament minimum from 12 to 13.

Keith Waters, the tour’s chief operating officer, called it a “commercial reality” to attract sponsors by retaining top players.

Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who is on the 15-man tournament committee that OK’d the incentive, likely will swap the Memorial Tournament next spring for the Scandinavian Masters.

“You can see it’s tough when you’re a member of two tours,” he said in Norton, Mass., before winning the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second of four events on the PGA Tour's lucrative FedEx Cup playoff series.

For Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, who competes on both sides of the Atlantic, playing in the Irish Open will be pro forma. It’s always on his schedule.

“They’re trying to get as many of the top players playing, especially their home national events,” he said.

Germany’s Martin Kaymer went a step further, calling the move “brilliant.”

“If you’re from Ireland, England, Spain, Germany, I think you should play there anyways,” he said. “You shouldn’t be pushed to do it.”

For Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, the struggles with playing full-time on the PGA and European tours has become difficult. With larger purses and better-conditioned courses, the PGA Tour proves to be an allure to younger players who might otherwise stay closer to home in Europe. Blixt, who played college golf at Florida State and maintains a home in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., is committed to supporting the European Tour. However, it's coming at a cost.

“I don't think it's right, but I get it,” Blixt said of the European Tour's position. “I feel when I play the Swedish Masters, it's a privilege to play there, but I don't want to make it a must. I know they're trying to protect the tour. Hopefully, they'll play it anyway, but it's kind of unfair to the guys to have a tournament in their home country and the guys that don't have one because it doesn't affect them at all.”

England's Lee Westwood, who recently moved his family to the U.S., sympathizes with Blixt. For Westwood, playing the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth might not be much of a sacrifice. But for many others, the changes in their schedules might prove difficult.

"It's unfortunate for some of the other players, like the Italians, maybe the Dutch, some of the Swedes, forcing them to play a tournament that might not fall on their schedules and might force them to make a decision," Westwood said. "I didn't see the point in doing it, to be honest. It was making a rule just for the sake of it, I think."

For the numerous South Africans on both tours, the stakes will be doubled. Because their home nation hosts seven tournaments, they will be asked to play at least two.

“I don’t get why they want to force a guy to play somewhere,” Charl Schwartzel said. “Guys are going to give up their memberships.”

Many players expressed concern about how far the European Tour can go to protect its interests while not adversely affecting the players.

“I think they're right on that borderline,” Ulsterman Rory McIlroy said. “I think it's just right at the minute. If they start to go a little bit too far, I think you'll hear guys say it's too much. I just want to play one side or the other, and I think most guys know which side they're going to choose.”

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