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  • Alistair Tait

Golf is becoming a popularity contest

If you didn’t think professional golf is becoming a popularity contest following the announcement of the PGA Tour’s obscene $40 million Player Impact Program, then Rickie Fowler’s early PGA Championship invitation should have convinced you.

So much for major championship fields being chosen on merit. Seems Fowler has received an early free pass to Kiawah Island because he wears duck billed hats, sports Oklahoma State orange on Sundays and, well, he’s just an all-round good bloke.

You can bet there are quite a few players above him on the Official World Golf Ranking right now who are not best pleased with the PGA of America. Including Sweden’s Alex Noren.

As far as I know, Noren isn’t currently in the PGA Championship field. He wasn’t included in the PGA of America’s special exemption to Fowler and fellow American John Catlin “based on their performances, playing records and OWGR position,” a PGA of America spokesperson told NBC Sports' Will Gray.

Catlin deserves his place: he’s the world’s 82nd best player following victory in the Austrian Golf Open, his third European Tour win in 13 starts.

Fowler’s 111th on the OWGR. He was set to take up his PGA Championship place courtesy of playing in the 2018 Ryder Cup. However, it was contingent on him being inside the world top 100 by the 10th of May.

The five-time PGA Tour winner had an opportunity to improve on his world status by playing well in this week’s Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida on the PGA Tour. He’s conspicuous by his absence, but then he’d already been invited to play in the second men’s major of the year, so no need to travel to Florida’s Gulf coast to try to improve his world ranking. Or worsen it.

Ten-time European Tour winner Noren, who played in the victorious 2018 Ryder Cup team, is competing in the Valspar. He’s the world’s 107th ranked player and obviously needs a good finish to ensure a spot in the PGA Championship. He’ll probably need to get into the top 100 to make the trip to Kiawah. He’s nowhere near as popular as Rickie.

Fowler’s been falling down the world order rapidly of late. From a high of fourth in 2016, Fowler ended 2020 ranked 52nd and missed the Masters as a result, the first time he’s sat out a major since before the 2010 Open Championship.

A string of poor performances this season doesn’t suggest Fowler deserves his place at Kiawah on form. In nine PGA Tour starts, he has three missed cuts and a best finish of T17 in the Valero Texas Open. The 32 year old has played well previously in the PGA of America’s blue-chip event. He was T3 in 2014, and T5 in 2017. He also has nine other top 10s in majors, including runner-up in the U.S. Open and Open Championship in 2014, and second in the 2018 Masters.

I like Fowler. Have done since I met him at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down. He actually is an all-round good bloke, always approachable, always willing to talk to golf writers. I get it he’s extremely popular with fans, especially youngsters. I don’t blame him for taking up the PGA of America’s invitation. Who wouldn’t? However, I don’t agree with that body granting him a place in this year’s PGA Championship when he’s outside the top world 100. Ditto for Noren, who’s also a really nice person.

Surely the reason the majors stand out from run of the mill tournaments is precisely because they’re for the world’s best players, the best in-form players, or for those who’ve qualified on merit via another metric such as past champions (Masters, Open Championship, etc.)? No problem with sponsors of regular tournaments inviting whoever they want. They’re putting up the money. But not the majors.

Many might disagree with me given Fowler’s popularity, but the PGA of America has got this one wrong. The body representing America’s club professionals didn’t have to follow the PGA Tour and reward players for how they measure on the popularity scale.

Major championships are supposed to be above that sort of thing.

#JustSaying: “I had no idea there would be so much hype over those Union Jackets trousers. I just thought it would be cool to wear something different that week.” Ian Poulter on wearing Union Jack trousers in the 2004 Open Championship


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