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  • Alistair Tait

Europeans didn’t feel Players love in Lyle era

Twenty Europeans tee it up in this week Players Championship. That’s a far cry from the days when Europeans struggled to get into prestigious PGA Tour tournaments.

Europeans didn’t get much love in the early days of the Players.

Sandy Lyle made history in 1987 by becoming the first winner of the Players Championship from outside the United Sates. He was one of four Europeans in the field. Ken Brown, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros were the others.

Lyle defeated Jeff Sluman in a three-hole playoff. Sluman’s chances weren’t helped when a fan jumped into the pond as he settled over a six-foot birdie putt on the 17th green that would have won him the championship. Sluman had to back off and regroup. He missed. Idiots fans at PGA Tour events obviously isn’t a new phenomenon. That fan is probably grandfather of those modern-day morons who think yelling “mashed potato” is funny.

This week’s purse is worth $15 million with the winner taking home $2.7 million. Lyle won $180,000 from a $1 million purse.

Most Europeans, no matter how good they were, had no chance of getting their hands on that sort of prize money in Lyle’s day. Not just Europeans. Unless your name was Greg Norman, Nick Price or Tommy Nakajima, then getting a spot in a PGA Tour event was almost impossible.

Great European Tour players like Mark James, Howard Clark, Sam Torrance, the late Gordon Brand Jr and others just couldn’t get starts in PGA Tour events.

“It was a closed shops in those days,” Howard Clark once told me. “I wrote letters asking for invites but I got nowhere. Tournament organisers just didn’t want to know.”

Clark was one of the best ball strikers the European Tour has ever produced. He won 11 times in Europe and played in six Ryder Cups. Yet he couldn’t get a PGA Tour start for love nor money. Brown was in the 1987 Players field because he earned his card at the PGA Tour Qualifying School. He made a success of it by winning the 1987 Southern Open, but playing two tours took its toll. Brown made around 27 transatlantic trips one season trying to play both the European and PGA Tour circuit, back in the days when only superstars like Arnold Palmer could afford to fly in private jets.

Former European Tour CEO Ken Schofield deserves a lot of credit for lobbying PGA Tour officials to get European Tour members starts in PGA Tour events. Now we take it for granted that players in the top 50 will compete in prestigious tournaments like the Players.

Why not? As they've been proving for generations, members of “that European Tour” can really play. Four Europeans – Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer and defending champion Rory McIlroy – have joined Lyle on the winners’ scroll.

The chances of another European winner this week are high. McIlroy is 7/1 favourite, with Jon Rahm second favourite at 12/1. Bernd Wiesberger is 125/1. He probably won’t win but at least he’s in the field. Clark must feel just a little bit miffed he wasn’t given the same opportunity.


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