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No shows at Match Play may hurt golf sponsorship

Golf's gravy train took its scheduled stop at Wentworth last week when one million pounds ($1.68 million) was on offer for four days' work at the World Match Play Championship -- but no one wanted to know.

That's a little unfair actually.

A 12-strong field for the jackpot first prize did include the likes of Chad Campbell, Stephen Leaney, Len Mattiace and Tim Clark but, without being too unkind, their ability to sink the putts is not yet matched by their ability to pull the crowds.

True, world number two Ernie Els and third-ranked Vijay Singh did lift the field beyond mediocrity but, for the most part, it wasn't a case of the Who's Who of golf in action last week. It was more just Who?

If the old saying that everyone has their price is true then the lesson of last week's World Match Play is that sponsors will need to dig much, much deeper into their pockets -- in the short term at any rate -- to attract the somebodies rather than the relative nobodies of golf.

Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and Davis Love III, to name but three high-profile Americans, have all become rich enough to suit themselves rather than their bank managers and a million quid first prize is evidently not large enough to tempt them from hearth and home.

All of them qualified to challenge for a record winner's cheque in European golf, but all three cried off from a trip to Wentworth with various excuses. And this in a tournament organised by Woods' own management company, IMG.

The trio's absence did not draw official comment from sponsors HSBC Bank, backing the event for the first time, but it must have caused their executives to squirm in a week when they announced 4,000 job losses to cut global company costs.

First-round losers at Wentworth, meanwhile, were walking away with 75,000 pounds apiece.

How long golf's pampered elite can turn their noses up to earnings that would turn chief executives of blue chip companies green with envy is anybody's guess.

Both the U.S. and European tours have somehow continued along their merry, champagne-laden ways to build bigger purses year-on-year while the rest of the business world has been forced to lay off staff and slash costs as recession hits.

To put things into some context, Seve Ballesteros last week recalled earning a cheque of 15,000 pounds for his British Open win in 1979; this year, Ben Curtis snaffled 700,000 for the same title. Even allowing for inflation, that is some improvement.

Neither the European nor U.S. Tours have indicated the lucrative bandwagon will slow in 2004, but last week's no-shows at Wentworth for what should have been a blue ribband display of golf's finest talents leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Gary Player, 67 and a five-times winner of the event, has accused the absentees of ducking their obligations to the cause of international golf. At all costs, the sponsors must be kept happy, urged this wise old man of golf.

Other damage may have been done too and this will affect the players' pockets in the long term, if not this generation's performers.

The HSBC is committed to back the World Match Play for 10 years, but other potential supporters may stay away after observing the sponsoring bank's experience at Wentworth.

Apart from the disappointing field last week, media coverage of the event was well down on past years.

Editors need drama and big names to attract readers and Wentworth did not have much of either this year. Those missing column inches in newspapers are bad news for golf.

Sponsors splash out on sports events for broader exposure, and not to provide yet more spending money for multi-millionaire players.

One day, even the Tiger Woods of the future may learn that fact the hard way.

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