First Cut: The view of Tommy Fleetwood and the European Tour is complex but creates fun debate

Last weekend’s Honda Classic was tremendous, even without what might be considered a great field. The weekend had great drama, better characters and a golf course up to the challenge. It was a delight. Though I handed out some grades following the tournament, there were a few things I wanted to dive back into as they relate to the broader golf world.

The first is what became the talk of golf Twitter on Sunday afternoon as Tommy Fleetwood tried to win his first PGA Tour event. NBC broadcaster Paul Azinger went at Fleetwood over a few points (see below) as he pumped up the PGA Tour and tried to contextualize what it means to win there.

Here are those points via some of Azinger’s quotes.

1. “A lot of pressure here, you’re trying to prove to everybody you have what it takes” — I get what Azinger is saying, but at the same time Fleetwood has crushed at the Ryder Cup, which Azinger has in the past lauded as the most pressure-packed event you can possibly play. Fleetwood went 4-1 in 2018 in Paris while paired with Francesco Molinari and was one of the two or three biggest stars on the absolute biggest stage. So while it’s good to win as an individual, I think the idea that Fleetwood has anything to prove at a Honda Classic with only a handful of the best guys that would supersede what he’s already proved is logically shortsighted (at best).

2. “These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour … but you have to win on the PGA Tour” — Well … yeah. But when there are only 40 winners a year, and half of those events aren’t played by the best guys, wins aren’t the only thing you should be measured by. Fleetwood has played just 25 PGA Tour events that weren’t majors or WGCs (basically half a Sungjae Im season), and he has eight top 10s. Let’s let the thing breathe a little bit (like, let him get to 50 PGA Tour-only events) before we start rolling down this path.

3. “[The PGA Tour] is where they want to be, isn’t it? They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level” — This was the crux of it, and the part Europeans embedded in the game and on social media will be offended by the most. I’m split here. Azinger was dismissive of both Fleetwood and the European Tour, which is nonsense. It’s not like he was out there winning Trophee Hassan IIs! Fleetwood’s European Tour wins include Abu Dhabi (twice) and the French Open. All of which had better fields than this Honda Classic.

The dismissiveness of the European Tour as “that European Tour” is more problematic. Even when you consider the fact that European Tour players’ world rankings are often bloated by a system that needs fixing, the best events on that tour are far (far!) better than the lower-end events on the PGA Tour. Fleetwood has played (and does play) in only the biggest events across the pond. And he wins. 

At the same time, what Azinger is saying isn’t necessarily wrong. He’s backed up by the No. 1 player in the world, who also happens to be both a European and come from the European Tour. Here’s what Rory McIlroy said at the beginning of 2019 at the Tournament of Champions as he started skipping early European Tour events for a more PGA Tour-centric schedule.

“I want to play against the best players in the world,” McIlroy told reporters. “I get a buzz from that. I’d much rather go down the stretch against Justin Thomas or Dustin Johnson. I’m not putting anyone down in Europe, but the depths of fields and everything is just that bit better over here. It’s what everyone is striving for. It’s why [Italy’s] Francesco Molinari is here this week. It’s where it’s heading.

“The ultimate goal is here. The European Tour is a stepping stone. That’s the truth. The European Tour is a stepping stone. That’s the way it is. It’s tough. I still want to support the European Tour, and I talk about this loyalty thing with Europe. … [But] it’s not as though I’m just starting out and jumping ship. I’ve done my time. I’ve done everything I feel like I need to do to say, ‘OK, I’m going to make my own decisions and do what I want.'”

A tough scene (but a fair and correct one!) for the very insecure and very jumpy European golf Twitter crowd.

Ultimately, I loved the Azinger comments because they engendered discussion on both sides. The European Tour is good, but it’s not good enough for the best players. We’ve seen this time and time again. Combine that antiquated idea with the idea that winning is everything, and you get a combustible media mixture with which you can take any angle. 

That’s fun and good if you’re interested in golf, and the conversation about it into the future will be great as long as folks take a fair approach. Also, I’m excited for the post-2020 Ryder Cup interview with Azinger when Fleetwood goes 5-0 and does a few laps around Lake Michigan using the trophy as a kickboard.

More thoughts from the weekend … 

Golf is stupid vol. 394: Mackenzie Hughes had missed eight of his last 10 cuts, and the only two tournaments that weren’t MCs, he finished T55 and T65. So of course he went out and shot 66-66 on the weekend at one of the hardest courses on the PGA Tour and nearly downed two top-30 players in the process for his second PGA Tour win. Of course.

Underrated moment of the weekend: Speaking of Hughes, his best move may not have been with a club. It may have been when Sungjae Im went at the 180-yard par-3 15th flag, which was dangerously short and right and basically right next to the water. I think Hughes did what the rest of us were thinking having seen that Im shot.

Youngjae Im: Here is a list of players Sungjae Im is younger than: Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa, Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler. This cannot possibly be talked about enough. Im is 21 years old, inside the top 25 in the world, asserting himself as an alpha and primed to make a splash at this year’s major championships. If you haven’t already bought stock, him winning the Honda Classic was not a one-off event. There will be plenty more beyond that one. Trick question, too: You can’t buy stock. I own it all.

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