Monday, August 17, 2009

Incorporating the Solheim Cup into a World Cup or Dismantling it for the Olympics?

In what's become a bienniel tradition, golf writing's heavyweights have weighed in with plans to improve the Solheim Cup, from Gary Van Sickle to Ron Sirak (while Randall Mell positions himself among the traditionalists who like the Europe vs. America face-off, at least going by whom he quotes in the former piece, but also calls for an additional U.S.-South Korea showdown in the latter). So of course I'll take the opportunity to join in once again.

I still favor the model I originally proposed in September 2007, which is conservative in the sense that it preserves the U.S. vs. Europe tradition of the Solheim Cup and the Korea vs. Japan tradition of the Pinx/Kyoraku Cup (the name changes depending on where the Cup is held each year), but innovative in the sense that the timing and format of the latter would have to be modified to mirror the former (right now it's head-to-head stroke play matches over 2 days, usually in December) and that the winners and losers of each individual odd-numbered-year competition would face off in even-numbered years. All it would take to make it happen is an agreement between the 4 major women's tours: the LPGA, LET, JLPGA, and KLPGA. If the JLPGA and KLPGA were to move quickly and change the format if not timing of the Pinx/Kyoraku Cup this year, we could have our first world championship in 2010. I'm sure Lexus and HSBC would love the chance to help organize and support an event that would pit the 48 of the best women golfers in the world against each other in even-numbered years. Qualifying would become an annual affair rather than the 2-season marathon it now is, giving more players a chance to participate and ensuring that each team is composed of the hottest players in its zone. And even though Europe is at a huge disadvantage this year, there are plenty of young European players who have what it takes to make the Solheim Cup interesting again. Anna Nordqvist already made it to this year's team, but by 2011 she should be joined by Sandra Gal, Pernilla Lindberg, Dewi Claire Schreefel, Maria Hernandez, Azahara Munoz, and Carlota Ciganda, who have been proving themselves in global competition for years.

But even this Solheim-Pinx/Kyoraku-Lexus/HSBC conglomeration still wouldn't include all the best women golfers, so the question of how to make it truly global then arises. Any international team competition that excludes Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Thailand and fails to include Taiwan, China, Colombia, and Brazil is still embarrassingly limited. The difficulty, of course, is how to handle that expansion. If you follow Ron Sirak's route and turn Team USA into Team Americas and Team Europe into Team Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, but keep my idea of 4 teams competing each year rather than his idea of forming an Australasian team and having the losing team in one competition sit out the next one, how would you expand Teams Korea and Japan? One way to do it would be to pit an Asian team anchored by Korea, China, and Thailand against a Pacific team anchored by Japan and Australia. The stumbling block there is that the Chinese government might have a slight problem with Taiwan being on the Pacific team. On top of diluting existing rivalries and traditions, the additional potential for political crisis built into this approach makes it a non-starter in my book.

Another way to do it would be to add a third leg to the competition by creating two new teams that would face off against each other every odd-numbered year: Team Atlantic vs. Team Pacific. The former would most likely include Canadian, Mexican, Columbian, Brazilian, and other players born in the Americas (but not in the United States), Caribbean, or Africa; the latter would consist of Australian, Chinese, Russian, Pacific Islander, and East, Southeast, and South Asian players not born in Korea or Japan. But this would create exactly that transnational hodge-podge my original proposal was trying to avoid, plus it introduces complications in the even-numbered years, where we'd have to create a winners' bracket and a losers' bracket and create some kind of round-robin format in each.

Given that we can't even begin to preserve the Solheim and Pinx/Kyoraku Cups and incorporate them into something global until 2011, 2 more interesting options arise, one modelled after soccer's World Cup and the other changing the very nature of the proposed Olympics golf experience and the existing structure of international team golf.

In the World Cup model, the idea would be to modify FIFA's structure of 6 regional qualifying zones (Africa, Asia, Europe, North/Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania, and South America) and complicated preliminary match set-up--an artifact of soccer's global spread and the relative strength of competition around the world--and make it more appropriate to golf's history and competitive balance. The difficulty here is that very few countries could stand up against the juggernauts of the U.S., Korea, EU, and Japan. Australia yes, Canada and Thailand maybe not, Mexico someday, China even later (but sooner with Taiwan). Breaking up the EU just adds more weaker teams to the mix and cements the advantage of the remaining Big 3. How many nation-based teams could even field 12 world-class players? The existing Women's World Cup of Golf has 2-player teams. What I would suggest is creating 4 regional qualifying zones--the Americas, Europe/Africa, Asia, and Pacific--and allowing any number of 12-player transnational teams to be formed in each zone and compete against each other in an even-numbered year for the chance to knock off the zone's power team (US, EU, Korea, Japan) at the very beginning of the odd-numbered season. That way, everyone in the world would have a chance to participate and play their way to the big stage. The Big 4 would have a chance to defend their status against the best challengers and compete for status against each other after their likely victories. The winter silly season would become less silly and the summer break less boring.

The Olympics model, by contrast, would go the national route, which would mean dismantling rather than building upon the Solheim Cup. The ISOC can keep their boring 60-player, 72-hole event for individual medals--they can even save it for the last 4 days of the Olympics. But they ought to add a 4-team showdown that's the culmination of 3 years of shootouts. 2013: 32 teams start out, seeded by average Rolex Ranking of each team, following the Solheim Cup format in matches taking place all over the world. 2014: the Sweet 16 face off. 2015: the Elite 8 compete for entry into the 2016 Olympics. 2016: the winners of the semifinals play for the gold while the losers play for the bronze at the end of the 1st week of the Games.

Personally, I prefer the World Cup model as I've laid it out here. How about you?

[Update 1 (8/25/09, 7:04 am): Ryan Ballengee comes out in favor of Sirak's 3-way idea. I can't say strongly enough how wrong they are.]

[Update 2 (3:45 pm): Brent Kelley calls for a Solheim Cup clone: Team USA vs. Team Asia in even-numbered years. But why have 24 of the best golfers in the world facing off in team match play when you can have 48? All you need is a complex with 2 courses, 1 for the winners in the previous year and 1 for the losers.]

1 comment:

Witty Camelle said...

1) Wouldn't golf tournaments men or women actually be more entertaining if they had fewer players playing at one time? E.g. Top 10 players from the 1st 3 days play the 4th.
2) Are competitive tournaments more entertaining even if they exclude the best players. Golf has a lot of part time fans that only know a few players.
3) What about a little team golf?