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Growing pains of the World Golf Championships

Except for the glorious view of Gibraltar and a refreshing breeze off the Mediterranean Sea, the final World Golf Championships event of the year could be mistaken for the Byron Nelson Classic.

Substitute match play for stroke play -- and the Mediterranean for Port Philip Bay -- and the same could be said for the next official WGC event in Australia.

And Match Play won't even have Tiger Woods.

These tournaments were supposed to bring together the best players from all corners of the globe to compete for a $1 million prize and no small measure of prestige. ``This time, it's for the world,'' was the initial marketing gimmick.

Only most of America is sitting this one out.

The American Express Championship, which starts Thursday at quirky, cork-tree lined Valderrama Golf Club, is further evidence that the WGC is experiencing serious growing pains.

It's supposed to be for the top 50 in the world ranking, along with the leading money-winners on six tours who don't otherwise qualify.

But a dozen Americans -- including five of the top 10 in the world rankings --decided to stay home this week. Only two Americans in the top 20 are at Valderrama. The fact that one of them is Woods, the defending champion, helps give the depleted field a ton of credibility.

Add it up, and this prestigious event has a field comparable in strength to the Nelson Classic, a rank-and-file PGA Tour event. Then again, the Nelson purse is $4 million, far greater than any regular event played on any other tour.

And the PGA Tour has a lot more just like it.

``The thing is, $1 million isn't a huge amount of money to them,'' Darren Clarke said Tuesday. ``It's a huge amount of money to everybody else.''

The world does not revolve around the United States, only the PGA Tour. It has the best players, the largest purses and the best conditions. That explains why most top players wind up on American shores at some point.

When asked how the WGC concept was working, Scott Verplank said what a lot of American players must be thinking.

``It will improve once they get all the major tournaments in the United States,'' he said. ``This playing around the world ... all the best players are here.''

In other words, a world championship is a great idea -- as long as Americans don't have to go all over the world.

``They're like a bag of prawns on a hot Sunday. They don't travel well,'' Stuart Appleby of Australia said.

Some Americans are undecided about whether they will travel to South Africa in two years for the Presidents Cup. Spain is an even shorter trip, and yet only two members of the U.S. team made it to Valderrama -- Woods and Kirk Triplett.

In fairness to Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman, both struggled with injuries over the latter half of the season and want to rest for next year, starting in Melbourne. Jim Furyk injured his wrist.

Still, the success of the WGC rests on getting the best players in the world to participate -- not necessarily all of them, but certainly more than this.

And it's not just Valderrama.

The Match Play Championship, scheduled for the first week of the year Down Under -- way down under for a lot of players -- could have to dip into the 80s in the world rankings to fill out the brackets. It's supposed to be for the top 64 in the world.

The NEC Invitational at Firestone was supposed to be for members of the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams. Even that didn't pan out when European tour boss Ken Schofield changed the rules and knocked out Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik.

The World Cup next month in Argentina, the unofficial WGC event, also took a serious hit. America will send Woods and David Duval. But of the top 18 players available, 11 declined.

Phil Mickelson complained last week that the PGA Tour wasn't listening to the players when it scheduled $5 million events around the holidays in Australia, and stuck the American Express behind the Tour Championship.

But commissioner Tim Finchem admitted mistakes in both cases and fixed them. Match Play will probably become a spring event, and the Tour Championship will return to its rightful place as the last tournament.

The American Express will move to St. Louis -- anywhere but Valderrama would have sufficed -- and into the fall.

Still, more trouble might be lurking.

Top European players will have to fly over the pond in August for the NEC Invitational, then come back three weeks later for the American Express, which is two weeks before the Ryder Cup.

Don't be surprised if some Europeans take their cue from the Americans and sit one out.


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