The Sun Rises on a New Day in North American Team Golf

By: Jay Flemma


Montego Bay, Jamaica: In the 5 a.m. pre-dawn gloom the Jamaican sea and sky are still welded seamlessly in dark navy blue on the horizon. But already the golfers' rooms are full of light and movement. Soon, the sun will rise and set the sapphire sea aglow, gilding gold upon the water. But to the young PGA pros-to-be, the sun is rising on a great opportunity: the chance to play for flag and country in a warm-up for the PGA Tour and Ryder Cup.

The Pro Team Golf league represents unprecedented vividness in the way team golf and match play will one day be played in North America. The growth of team golf will give North American players exponentially more experience in Ryder Cup match play formats. An innovative scoring system will provide a whole new definition of match play, and the television opportunities from a looming Golf Channel deal will bring team golf and fresh faces into America's living rooms with the highest profile. Finally, the internet user-to-team owner interface allows fans to have a voice in strategic decisions for their "home" team.

Other team golf leagues exist, but none of them feature the number or quality of touring pros as those signed to the PTGL. According to Tom Belton, CEO of PTGL, "The NGL [National Golf League] has teams in California right now and there is a World Golf League. We are different because we have a high number of Nationwide Tour players and Canadian Tour players who have notched victories and competed at the highest level, such as major championships and Walker Cup teams. These are touring players that are top-flight guys."

Later this year, eight cities from across the continent will host teams of Nationwide and Canadian Tour players. Who are the owners? "We have interest from a wide variety of businessmen and women in many communities that have strong business ties in their respective communities," Belton says energetically.

"There are groups of professional athletes, not PGA professionals, but other sports. We are interested in people with golf industry experience of course, if they are interested in a franchise. A three-member board selects groups for franchises. Golf industry experience is a plus, but passion about golf and the idea of fan interaction and participation is critical - and of course we want individuals with pristine financial pedigrees and good character. League Commissioner Dave Braun, the chairman of the board and a co-founder, and Director of Team Development Dick Newbert, will screen applicants for franchises. There is a licensing and revenue sharing agreement that spells out financial obligations and requirements between the team and league. We have an owner's manual involving player eligibility, venue rules, processes "just like the NFL and other leagues."

Players are then signed to an eligibility list. There is a draft each year, and each player must be under contract in order to be eligible for any purses. The minimum purse the first year is $2 million. Owners pick up all reasonable travel expenses, a minimum application fee (the same for each player, between $1,000 and $2,500), and each team must have some form of extra compensation - bonuses based on wins, cash won, double-points selections by the fans, or equity in the team � phantom or real.

Teams will compete in an eight-week season throughout the year that does not conflict with a mini-tour and Q school. Each weekend there will be four teams at one venue, playing the other three teams over the weekend in nine-hole matches. There are four "four-balls," then four "foursomes," then eight singles matches.

But on December 17th, when eight players each from Canada and the U.S. face off in the new match-play format, scores will not be kept the traditional way - where the winning player scores one point. Instead, the winner gets not only the holes he won, but the remaining holes as well. So if a player wins 3 & 2, he gets five points. A player winning 6 & 5 gets a whopping 11 points. Moreover, the fans vote for a player, whose points are doubled if he wins the vote.

Most importantly, players will get at least 24 more matches of doubles play than they would otherwise have. "American players never play doubles formats," notes Canadian team member Brad Fritsch. "I think that's one reason why the Europeans win - they play alternate-shot and best-ball in weekend games growing up."

Belton agreed, noting that "as our players make it to the PGA and ascend to the team, they'll have more experience. We're also developing proprietary software tracking every conceivable statistic. We'll have reams of data which coaches can use and analyze what team synergies work. College coaches could use it as well."

The players are certainly excited. Take Brock Mackenzie, for example. While former pro football and basketball players trade drinks and jibes with league officials and the other celebrity guests and team members, Brock is chipping ball after ball, hour after hour on the practice green while his girlfriend, Hannah, dutifully watches from her greenside beach blanket. Chip, chip chip . . . watch, watch, watch. Occasionally they trade the serene smile of lovers - the contented look of a woman in love, tranquil in the knowledge her man has eyes only for her, and his equally devoted, confident wordless reply.

Then it's back to work. Chip, chip, chip . . . watch, watch, watch.

"I've actually enjoyed the doubles matches I have played," Brock notes enthusiastically between pitch shots. His experience in the 2003 Walker Cup gives him a leg up for the matches tomorrow. With younger players more familiar with the formats, doubles will no longer be an impenetrable, recondite quagmire. The decades of being crumpled like papier mache before the cameras on the grandest stage may be in the past.

More than just a game and fantasy league, the PTGL contributes to strategy, policy and creative business models. Yes, the league is a great golf experiment and player and team golf incubator. But more importantly, in stark contrast to the sloth and moral degeneracy of basketball, the runaway corporateness of football, and baseball's incompetent leadership and weakness of will, the leaders of this holistic, fledgling league underscore the family aspect of the organization - from team owners to league officials to the fans themselves.

Yet we all know a league's long term success or failure depends on early marriage with network TV and a legion of rabid fans developing a vicarious personal relationship to the game. The fans need to know, that on a certain date and time each week, this golf program is on the tube. Good or bad, that's the American way of sports - golf included. Plus, the competition will help grow the entire game - PGA, LPGA and European Tour just like the World League and USFL helped the growth of pro football and helped it topple baseball from a decades-long perch as America's game in just a few short years.

According to Ed Ellis, director of operations and league development: "There will be a one-hour special on the Golf Channel in late January/early February showcasing the inaugural USA vs. Canada team match and highlighting the league, its cities, its players and the fan interaction. The slogan "drive the game" is really true when it comes to the fan interaction.

"As the league expands, more matches will be televised from great golf venues, and the Golf Channel reaches between an estimated 40 and 60 million."

The anticipation is palpable. All the elements for success are in place, none more important than hungry, driven, accessible and energetic players. Steve Gangluff, a grizzled veteran of several tours, wears a steely gaze and infectious confidence. Stuart Anderson rouses his team with a colorful striped pants and an intimidating mountain of a physique. Dustin Risdon dominates the pro-am with a set of clubs pieced together from three different bargain racks. Brian Guetz ends the day with fireworks - a hole-in-one.

As the players turn in, tomorrow promises to be as much a battle of will and determination as well as skill.

Nightfall once again welds sea and sky into turquoise union. As the moon spreads a thin veil of silver over the golf course, tomorrow's matches burn like a proprietary torch illuminating the future of team golf and American Ryder Cup hopes. All that remains now is to watch for a turn of the tide.

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.


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