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Can the New Professional Team Golf League Help America’s Ryder Cup Fortunes?

By: Jay Flemma


The normally sultry afternoon heat on this Caribbean paradise is softened by a gentle December breeze. Along serene crescents of white sandy beach palm trees dip and sea gulls swerve while local musicians breezily play their life stories in calypso and reggae. But although it is renowned for rastas, island music and hedonistic pleasures, this weekend, no one has time for such diversions.

This weekend, Montego Bay, Jamaica, will transmogrify into ground zero for a pivotal golf summit seeking a two-pronged sea change in the way the professional game is played and marketed in the U.S. in our increasingly on-demand, Internet age. The founders of the new Professional Team Golf League hold not only their inaugural tournament, but an event that will test the popularity of team golf with the masses and offer research and insight into why the U.S. gets routinely trounced in doubles formats in the Ryder Cup.

Though Nationwide Tour and Canadian Tour players will play an exhibition, Ryder Cup-style match – Canada vs. USA, the nascent league will soon launch in eight cities across North America. It will consist of sides of mini-tour players in an attempt to spur the growth of team golf. Moreover, Internet fans are integral to actual play as they will formulate pairings, the playing order, and designate players whose points are doubled.

The email from PTGL’s PR reep, Ted Brockwood, was a lifeline to this freezing-cold, golf-starved New Yorker slaving away at his attorney’s desk. “How would you like to come to Jamaica and cover the first tournament? We’ll pick up your air fare and hotel. Write whatever you like, or nothing at all. Just give an honest opinion.”

Let’s see. Four days on an island retreat, total access coverage (including team meetings), tall drinks with Bacardi Select, sunshine all day, colorful beach shirts, oceanfront golf, plenty of sunscreen, beach books, and music . . . all I need is the cab fare to JFK, my passport, laptop, clubs, beach reading, swimming trunks, and a fine wiiiiiide gringo smile for my hosts. Gee, let me think . . . yes.

But this is not some left-handed, squirrelly, corporate-shill gig. I am not being paid to gush about this event, just observe and report – and “brutally frank” is right in my power zone. The questions of: 1) team golf strategy and 2) the intersection of golf and its media presentation that are at issue here are too important to be glossed over in some vacuous puff piece that trades probing introspection for fawning adulation. The stinging losses in the last three Ryder Cups illuminate these proceedings like a halogen torch. Something must be done.

Best of all, with inside-the-ropes and team-meetings access, we’ll see every tear, every joke, and every unscripted reaction from the players and owners, from practice range to locker room to dinner table to beachfront, exactly like when I covered the famed Potomac Cup matches between Maryland and Virginia this year.

There is no dodging the tough questions, and policy will be formulated as we watch. Why do some doubles pairings fizzle while others soar? How is the teammate chemistry different between four-balls and foursomes? What is the best way to arrange the players in the “batting order?”

Answers will be researched and analyzed at the speed of the Internet as fans, team owners and players interact electronically with one another. This is a revolutionary paradigm taking full advantage of state-of-the-art methods of communication (the Internet) and making it impact on course decisions. (The double-edge sword, of course, is the fan interaction. The degree of sway they hold over pairings and order may have owners and players reaching for antacids.)

Moreover, the American general public is more ready for the growth of team-oriented golf than TV executives care to think or desire. TV execs routinely underestimate Middle America, only like things they have seen before, and seemingly roll dice to determine scheduling (read: more reality shows). The only people more afraid of change than TV executives are record company executives.

But the two massive elephants in the living room can no longer be ignored. The U.S. is getting smeared in Ryder Cups like floppy grapes primarily due to losing the doubles formats. We get “ham-and-egged” to death year in and year out and start Sunday singles behind a supersized eight-ball. The growth of the Ryder Cup as a showcase, indeed flagship worldwide event, for golf mandates a stronger U.S. performance than the team has delivered on too many recent occasions.

Second, since the golf industry insists on having its majors conclude in August, before “Lord Football” ascends to its yearly throne and the baseball playoffs heat up in thermonuclear fashion, pro golf from September to February becomes secondary, an afterthought. The Tour Championship is still struggling to find its identity and may never have the cachet of The Players Championship because it’s not played on a truly memorable gem of a golf course like Sawgrass. The rest of the fall season is a joke with tourneys on courses no one heard of in cities no one visits. I can think of a million places to spend late September than Verona, N.Y., and that’s just on the same latitude. Team golf – be it LPGA, PGA or mini-tour – offers a highly competitive, meat-and-potatoes alternative to the vacuous silly season made-for-TV hogwash and “casino golf” tournaments for the “on-the-bubble” crowd seeking to keep their card.

Jack Nicklaus said back in the 1980s that team golf pitting city against city – for example Boston vs. New York – was “the salvation of the tour.” Nobody listened to him because they were preconditioned and afraid of change. But as the Ryder Cup has grown, so too has the public’s desire to participate in similar team competitions – for college, state, local community and yes, even country. Who wouldn’t want to play for the Stars and Stripes? Show me a golfer who is lukewarm about representing his country in a team event and I’ll show you a person without a soul or courage who doesn’t deserve the honor.

You tell me – do you actually think Boston vs. New York at Bethpage Black wouldn’t sell massive ticket numbers?

Ex-Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman and two-time Ryder Cupper Chad Campbell have joined the PTGL as Tour liaisons, helping sign Nationwide and Canadian Tour players to be drafted for eight North American franchises. The league hopes to expand to 16 franchises in Year Two and 24 franchises in Year Three.

In the most interesting but controversial aspect, fans can join the league as “coaches” and interact in a virtual “locker room” where they alone will select the teams for doubles formats and pick the order off the tee. The owners are risking a lot of money and player-relation goodwill on the golf strategy acumen and participation numbers of each team’s fans. This critical aspect will be analyzed over the coming weekend and as the first year progresses. But no matter what, it’s a brave new world for golf. The ropes just came down in a big way.

Coming Next: A sit-down with PTGL CEO Tom Benton, who explains how the league will work and if it will help America's Ryder Cup fortunes.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma’s comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America’s great public golf courses (and whether they’re worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf – or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.