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Match Play fails to attract many star names

Some years ago a sponsor new to European golf hit upon a brilliant idea. "Why don't we," they asked, "put up the biggest first prize in golf and then all the top Americans will come running to our tournament."

So they did - and they didn't. Not a single American, let alone any of the top ones, made the trip to the John Player Classic, at Hollinwell, Nottinghamshire, which was eventually won by Christy O'Connor Snr.

That was in 1970, O'Connor won £25,000, a fortune in those days. Now, 33 years later, another new European sponsor has come up with the same idea, with pretty much the same results.

HSBC, the banking giant, has put up a first prize 40 times greater than John Player and the winner of the World Match Play Championship this week at Wentworth will trouser a cheque for £1m. That is the biggest first prize in the game and a large fortune in anyone's terms.

But have the top Americans come running? Well, partly due to a skewed qualification policy and partly due to the fact that money alone has never been the determining factor for a player's schedule, none of the Americans ranked in the world top 20 will be on the tee today.

There is no Tiger Woods, no Davis Love III, no Jim Furyk, no David Toms, or Kenny Perry or Phil Mickelson. What is worse, in many ways, is that there is not a single British or Irish player in the draw, only the second time in the 40 years of this event's existence - the last time being 1967 - that this has happened.

That means there is no Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Paul Casey or Lee Westwood; not even Colin Montgomerie who has something of a history at Wentworth.

The problem is that the bank decided to base its qualification criteria around performances in the major championships and this year has thrown up some surprising winners and contenders. Hence we have the likes of Len Mattiace and Stephen Leaney, second in the Masters and the US Open respectively; Chad Campbell and Tim Clark, second and third in the US PGA.

Those were fine performances, but they are, in order of world ranking, 58th, 39th, 34th and 64th, hardly something to thrill to. The organisers bravely point out that "Ten of our 12-man field are in the world top 50" and that they have "three of the major champions for the first time in five years." That is true, but Mike Weir, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel mean little to the British public.

The absentees make it difficult to find compelling matches and it is unfortunate that the two biggest names present, the holder Ernie Els, the world No2 and Vijay Singh, world No3, cannot both reach the final. They are both in the top half of the draw and should meet in Saturday's semi-final.

Els made a brave effort to defend the personnel, saying: "Every now and then you get new people who break through and I don't think there's anything wrong with giving those people a chance to play in a lucrative tournament like this."

That is the view of a caring professional, which is what Els is, but it may not be the view of the paying public.

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