The most enticing aspect of the World Cup of Golf that starts Thursday is that it’s being played at Royal Melbourne, one of the game’s truly classic courses. The most disappointing part is that the tournament is nowhere near the event it was meant to be and that it was for years.
The World Cup was a very important main team event for some years after it started as the Canada Cup in 1953 at the Beaconsfield Golf Club in Montreal. The Ryder Cup was significant, but it didn’t turn into the most ferocious main event in world team golf until 1987, when Europe beat the U.S. at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. Winning in the U.S. was a big deal, and confirmed that Europe was a force in team golf. Europe had won in England in 1985, but winning in the U.S. informed golf-watchers that the Ryder Cup was a legitimate competition. The U.S. had utterly dominated the Ryder Cup until then.
As for the World Cup, John Jay Hopkins, the chairman of Canadair, which manufactured civil and military aircraft, started it as a two-man team competition. It was meant to foster “international goodwill through golf,” the event’s theme. Hopkins’ name remains on the trophy, so there’s at least that tie to the event’s origins.
The name of the competition changed in 1967 from the Canada Cup to the World Cup. Top players from each country–the top players–represented their countries. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer competed regularly, as did Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Johnny Miller. Sam Snead won with Palmer in 1960 and with Jimmy Demaret the next year, and with Palmer again in 1962. Snead won with Ben Hogan in 1956.
Canadian teams have won three times. George Knudson and Al Balding won in Rome in 1968; Balding won the individual title, then a minor element of the competition. Dan Halldorson and Jim Nelford brought Canada another win in 1980 in Bogota, Columbia, while Halldorson and Dave Barr won in 1985 in La Quinta, Calif.
Formats for the World Cup have changed over the years, meandering from 36 holes of stroke play in the first year to 72 holes from 1954 through 1999, and then a combination of better-ball and alternate shot or foursomes. Whatever the format, the team aspect was paramount.
But this week’s World Cup is primarily an individual tournament, in an effort to emulate what the golf competition at the Olympics in 2016 will look like. The World Cup at Royal Melbourne, then, looks like just about every tournament on the PGA and European Tours, week after week after week. The winner of the individual title will pick up $1.2-million (USD). Should Canadians David Hearn and Brad Fritsch take the team portion, each will win $300,000. The purse for the individual competition is $7-million. It’s $1-million for the team portion.
The difference in prize money between the individual and team portions of this year’s World Cup says it all. The competition’s website itself says it all: “Beginning in 2013, the competition becomes primarily an individual event with a team component.”
This doesn’t mean that Hearn and Fritsch won’t feel they are representing Canada. Flags will be raised, and ceremonies conducted to remind the golf world that the event is meant to be an international team event rather than the usual fare of a 72-hole tournament. But really, it’s a 72-hole “same old, same old” tournament, or near to it;. Still, Hearn used the words “proud to represent Canada” when I spoke with him recently. You can bet he is, and so is Fritsch.
Let’s see how it will all play out. I’ve been to a few World Cups, including my first 30 years ago at the Pondok Indah club in Jakarta, Indonesia. John Cook and Rex Caldwell won for the U.S., while Barr and Jerry Anderson tied with Australia for second. I remember the strong international atmosphere. There wasn’t much talk about the individual aspect.
That’s all changed now. The World Cup is a diminished event for its emphasis on the individual competition and the glaring imbalance in the prize money available. But we do get to watch another tournament at Royal Melbourne, where Adam Scott won last week’s Australian Masters. Royal Melbourne has hosted the World Cup three times, in 1959, 1972, and 1988.
Let’s hope for a compelling, close-run World Cup, in both the individual tournament and the team event–at least what’s left of it.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein