Thomas Bjorn overcame a far stronger field to win the 1998 Spanish Open than the one Jon Rahm beat at Centro Nacional de Golf on Sunday. Getting Europe’s big stars to play in traditional tournaments such as the Spanish Open is not as easy as it was 20 years ago.
Rahm was just one of two players from the Official World Golf Ranking top 50 to tee it up in Madrid last week as the Spanish Open returned to the European Tour schedule after a one-year absence. The World No. 4 (projected to move to No. 3 after the victory) had No. 24 Rafa Cabrera Bello for company. The two Spaniards deserve credit for returning from the Masters to tee it up in their home Open.
Japan’s Yusaku Miyazato was the next highest-ranked player at No. 60. Five other top-100 players journeyed to the Spanish capital: runner-up Paul Dunne (76), Seungsu Han (82), Hideto Tanihara (84), Eddie Pepperell (92) and Matt Wallace (94). It’s a far cry from what European Ryder Cup captain Bjorn faced at Real Club de Golf El Pratt near Barcelona to win his third European title.
Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer all challenged Bjorn in 1998. Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle were the only two players missing from Europe’s big six. Seasoned Ryder Cup players Sam Torrance, Mark James and Howard Clark played.
Sergio Garcia received an invitation to play in 1998 as an amateur and finished T-34. Garcia, the 2002 Spanish Open champion, didn’t play this year, although he did play in the previous four after a 10-year absence.
The thought of Seve Ballesteros or Jose Maria Olazabal missing the Spanish Open for 10 consecutive years was unthinkable. It was a big tournament back then. Indeed, for many years it was the traditional season opener before former European chief executive Ken Schofield jumped at the chance to start the season in Dubai.
Ballesteros won his home Open three times. Langer was a two-time winner. Faldo includes it among his 30 European Tour wins. Torrance and Clark each won it once, James twice. Previous name winners include Padraig Harrington, Charl Schwartzel, Colin Montgomerie, Bernard Gallacher, Brian Barnes, Roberto de Vicenzo, Ramon Sota, Peter Thomson, Peter Alliss and Max Faulkner. Arnold Palmer won in 1975.
A big-name American winning the Spanish Open any time in the near future is a non-starter. Except for players such as Rahm, Garcia and Cabrera Bello, who are compelled to play in their home Open, don’t even expect a star European to win the Spanish Open soon. The Spanish Golf Federation will be jumping for joy that Rahm won in his debut. They’ll hope the powerful Spaniard returns every year.
Truth is, the Spanish Open is like many other once-great tournaments. It just doesn’t register on the schedules of Europe’s elite players. Why should it? Why would the crème de la crème play in a $1.8 million event when they can tee it up in tournaments worth a minimum of $7 million in the Rolex Series, along with the majors and WGCs?
Appearance money might also affect Rahm’s future participation. He’s now such a household name, he can command appearance money to play in tournaments such as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, UBS Hong Kong Open and other events that shell out huge wads of cash to lure the stars.
Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and others play for sponsors willing to pay them extra just to turn up. And who can blame them? The smart move the European Tour made a few years ago was compelling its members to play at least one event per season in their homeland to maintain membership.
So the Spanish Open has a chance to get Rahm back on a consistent basis, but not European stars from other nations unless it can come up with the cash to turn the Spanish Open into a Rolex Series event. It’s the way of the world: Money talks and stars walk. I’m just not sure it’s something to be celebrated. Gwk