KAPALUA, Hawaii – The European Tour is stronger than ever, and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says he’s glad to see it.
The new golf season begins Thursday with the balance of power shifting toward Europe, which has the new world No. 1 in Lee Westwood and seven players among the top 11 in the world.
Westwood, PGA champion Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy have decided not to take up membership in America, and the European Tour over the last two years has increased to 13 the number of events required of its players.
All three were eligible for the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, but chose not to attend. British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, has chosen to play at home in the Africa Open.
“This recent focus on three or four players, particularly as it relates to Europe, does not cause us concern,” Finchem said. “We see the need for these players to support the tour in Europe. We feel like a strong European Tour is in everybody’s interests – in our interests.”
The PGA Tour remains the strongest in the golf – 36 of the top 50 in the world ranking are members. Beyond Europe, it attracts the top players from South Africa, Australia and South America.
Finchem acknowledged making it tough on Europe and chief executive George O’Grady four years ago when he moved The Players Championship – the richest event in golf – to May and created the FedEx Cup with its four-event playoff system in late summer.
That meant European Tour players who also are PGA Tour members abandoned their home circuit at critical times in the May and September.
“The European Tour has been under a lot of pressure, and we didn’t help their cause,” Finchem said. “So the fact that they have worked hard to encourage their players to play more … is understandable. And we don’t complain about that. We think that those steps are reasonable, and we support players playing more over there, even though it might cost us some starts over here.
“We feel like we are strong enough and we like the balance of international players.”
Finchem said the tour has 75 international players this year, and he likes that balance. He said it would not be good for the PGA Tour to be populated by 90 percent of players from outside America because “we need to appeal to the market in the United States.”
“It’s a balance that allows us to be very successful in the United States, and at the same be very successful in distributing our television product around the globe,” he said. “As long as those two things are working, we don’t have any concerns about this other stuff.”
Finchem said there was no plan to change its rule granting international players to play more than 10 or 12 tournaments a year on the PGA Tour if they are not members.
McIlroy and Westwood, who gave up their memberships, can only play 10 events (not including The Players Championship), while Kaymer, Francesco Molinari and Ryo Ishikawa can play 12 because they have never been members.
Finchem also said the FedEx Cup points system will stay the same for 2011.
There had been several complaints that a player far down in the standings only needed one good tournament – without winning – to advance to the Tour Championship and become eligible for three of the majors.
Martin Laird started at No. 95 and Kevin Streelman was at No. 102. Laird finished second at The Barclays and Streelman tied for third, and that was enough for both to advance to the final playoff event at East Lake.
Some players complained that eight months of work leading up to the playoffs was not as important as one good week, especially without winning a tournament.
“We just felt it was a little quick to react to that. We would rather watch it another year,” Finchem said. “I do think it’s an issue that clearly deserves watching. And then the other side of it – a smaller reason – was that we just felt we wanted a solid continuity to get more fans involved in the process without a distraction of explaining a change.”
On drug testing, Finchem said he is not ready to cut back on testing to save money, even though only one player –Doug Barron – has tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in three years.
“The upshot of the amount of testing we have done, which is significant, is that we certainly don’t have any kind of widespread problem,” Finchem said. “I think that’s due to the nature of the sport to some extent, but also to the diligence of the players in paying attention to the program, doing their homework, being careful, calling and asking questions.”