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Breaking the Herd Mentality

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the politics of the European Tour and how Padraig Harrington got involved to everyone's benefit

Posted Oct 20, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

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The herd instinct comes to the fore when sportspeople are either removed or protected from the realities of daily living.  We saw it to worst effect last week in Portugal in the build-up to a crucial meeting of the Tournament Committee of the European Tour.

In an attempt at strengthening their future competitive activities, as they saw them, the majority took the view that leading players had to be brought to heel.  So we had Rory McIlroy, a bright and normally reasonable young man, claiming that it didn't look good for the Tour "if players like Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter don't play in the flagship events."

This, of course, was a veiled reference to the fact that both players absented themselves from the BMW/PGA Championship at Wentworth last May.  In well targeted leaks, the Tour let it be known that they were particularly disappointed with Harrington's absence, given his status as a triple major champion.  And one can imagine the herd instinct working overtime with locker-room talk to the same effect.  Hence McIlroy's ill-judged comment about an Irish colleague.

All of this gained emphasis through a proposal before last week's meeting that leading players who ply their craft on both sides of the Atlantic, should be obliged to play in four out of six nominated, high-profile European events, namely the PGA, the French Open, Scottish Open, Irish Open, Dunhill Links and Portugal Masters. 

As it happened, Harrington fulfilled this requirement by competing in the Irish and French Opens, the Dunhill Links and the Portugal Masters this season.  And he made no secret of the fact that his absence from Wentworth was due to his dislike of the greens which were seeding and consequently uneven at that time of year.

So, what are his plans for next May?  "I'll be back at Wentworth," he told me.  "I have always liked the course and since they have re-laid the greens, I no longer have any reason for not being there."  Which is as reasonable an attitude as one could expect from a top tournament player.

Harrington also got involved, unwittingly, in a public spat last week with Thomas Bjorn, chairman of the Tournament Committee.  The Dane took grave offence at a throwaway remark, meant humorously, that any attempt to further restrict Tour membership could end up in an appeal to the European Union.   Bjorn, a passionate defender of his tour, was incensed.  And he said so to the media.  It later transpired, however, that he and Harrington, as long-time friends, had regular, amiable chats about the matter as the meeting approached.

Yet Bjorn remained sufficiently upset by all of the rumpus that he decided to resign as chairman and will be formally replaced at their next meeting in the New Year. And the indications are that his replacement will not be a regular tour player, vulnerable as Bjorn was to the baying of the herd.  Members are looking at the possibility of getting an experienced hand, not directly involved in current playing activities.

It is also arguable if players should be engaged in such discussions in the first place, given the business and legal ramifications involved.  Perhaps they might be better employed confining themselves to the actual playing of the game and matters like the presentation of tournament courses and other related matters.

Meanwhile Harrington accepted an invitation to address the meeting last Thursday evening.  And his comments about the importance of looking towards the world scene, especially in the Far East and South America, rather than behaving like insular Europeans, had a significant impact.  In fact it resulted in a change of tack, with a recommendation from the committee that a points system be introduced, weighting some tournaments more heavily than others.  All of which could mean a player having to play in more than the stipulated 12 events, if he didn't compete in the right ones.

At the end of it all, the Tour's chief executive, George O'Grady, summed up Harrington's contribution. "He is a superb ambassador for the European Tour who brought calm and balanced sanity to our discussions on how we can develop the European Tour on a global basis."

One man had broken from the herd.  And the indications are that his suggestions will be to the benefit of all, when a final decision on the requirements for Tour membership are taken by O'Grady and his executive, within the next month.

- Dermot Gilleece

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