Thursday, March 3, 2005

The Triumphant Return of Jaidee

By Kevin Beane

Regular readers of this space may remember that I used to run a department called "Thongchai Jaidee Watch" every column. Jaidee was the first Thai to win on the European Tour by capturing the 2004 Malaysian Open. I liked him and adopted him as the official golfer of Slant Pattern.

But the bi-weekly updates were a bit much, and they were often depressing. He would miss cuts badly when he would get invited to U.S. PGA events, and although he continued to make cuts on the European Tour, he never contended for a title on the European continent proper.

Well, this is a new year, and I'm happy to report same result for Jaidee in the 2005 Malaysian Open. The difference between last time and this was the level of his domination. This time around, he won wire-to-wire (leading alone after all four rounds) and his lead varied anywhere from two to seven on Saturday and Sunday, but never any less than that. The victory spoiled Padraig Harrington's 2005 debut, and a handful of other Ryder Cuppers were in the field, as well.

So it will be another two-year exemption on the European Tour and, we can hope, more invites to the U.S. He says his main goal is to get a automatic bid into the Masters by being in the Official World Golf Ranking's top 50 by March 28th. He's currently 57th, and will have two or three more tournaments to climb into the top-50 before the deadline. It's a shame this victory didn't come a few weeks before, or Jaidee would've qualified for the World Match Play event dominated by David Toms.

But as I watched the Malaysian Open unfold, another golfer caught my eye, Jaidee's countryman Prom Meesawat. Even by golf standards, Meesawat doesn't look like much of an athlete. He's 20, pudgy and bespectacled, and looks like the kind of kid that's always picked last in gym class for everything. He's also one of the few hatless golfers I've seen recently, since anybody playing for the smallest of purses can usually find a hat sponsor. In order for him to crack the top 50, even after the Malaysian Open, he's going to need to advance 496 spots.

Anyway, he may not look like a golfer, but he is, and he stayed in contention all week before finishing with a tie for sixth and pulling in a paycheck that amounts to $40,150 American dollars.

He only got the opportunity to shine, as did Jaidee and runner-up Jyoti Randhawa, because the European Tour, during these cold winter months, co-sanctions events (nine of them) with the Asian PGA Tour. The way it works is thusly: the European Tour and Asian Tour both get to bring their guys, and should an Asian Tour regular (like Jaidee, Meesawat, or Randhawa) pull off the victory, he gets the free pass to the bigger, more lucrative stage of the European PGA tour.

The European Tour also co-sanctions three events with the Australasian Tour and two events with the Sunshine Tour (South Africa). Pretty much anywhere you play golf in the world outside North America, you'll get a shot or two at the second-best tour in the world, one that guys with names like Els and Harrington spend half their time on.

It's basically a goodwill gesture on the part of the European Tour to co-sanction so many events with lesser tours, and it's a move the U.S. PGA tour would never dream of emulating (the Nationwide Tour, which serves as the U.S. PGA's high-minor-league circuit, co-sanctions two events with the Australasian Tour, but that's it).

So mark down yet another reason for my disillusionment with the U.S. PGA Tour when I note how the European Tour runs in comparison, and on much less money. The U.S. PGA Tour will not step outside North America, will probably never in my lifetime co-sanction an event with another tour, and is not much interested in the health of world golf outside of North America (witness them attempting to strong-arm Ernie Els into playing more in the States and less overseas last year. Els wouldn't budge, good for him).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the isolation and hubris of the U.S. PGA tour seems to be visited upon its members. A great many U.S. PGA tour regulars seem to all be cut from the same upwardly-mobile-white-male-Republican mold. Not many stand out. Not many give me a unique reason to cheer for them. I have very little in common with them.

In his book, "A Good Walk Spoiled," John Feinstein reports how most members of the 1993 U.S. Ryder Cup team wanted to decline Bill Clinton's invitation to the White House because, well, they hated his politics and/or person that much. Feinstein mused that the U.S. PGA would likely elect Rush Limbaugh President of the United States if they could. During the past election cycle, Golf Magazine conducted an informal George W. Bush vs. John Kerry poll of U.S. PGA Tour members, and Bush didn't win it in a landslide, he won in a shutout (6-0). Fred Funk said in the piece that he hates Democrats.

I know, I know, to each is own. Someone's politics shouldn't affect my opinion of him. I wouldn't be so distressed by this if I didn't feel like this didn't describe virtually all of the U.S. PGA tour regulars. Based on everything I've heard and read, out of the 200 or so card-carrying members of the U.S. PGA Tour, perhaps 180-190 are conservative enough that they would not, under normal circumstances, have much to do with a guy like me. Kind of puts that U.S. PGA Tour daydream that I (and every other hacker) will never fulfill into perspective: if you join, they will hate you.

It's when I watch the European PGA Tour that I'm reminded that there is some golf to follow, watch, and love outside of the country club, privileged, hate-the-Democrats world of the U.S. PGA Tour. Watching the European PGA Tour reminds me why I love golf — because there is constantly a new contender in almost every tournament that one instantly likes — and likes enough to track week-to-week.

Thongchai Jaidee will always be the official golfer of the Slant Pattern. Of these golf human-interest stories that appeal to me so, he came first. But there's so many others I've become a huge fan of besides Jaidee and Meesawat.

I will undoubtedly add to this list over the course of the year, and although a couple of these guys play stateside, for the most part I have the European Tour to thank for introducing me to these players and The Golf Channel for bringing them to my house.

* Scott Gardiner of Australia, just because I think he looks like me (at least if I shaved the beard and dropped some pounds).

* Amandeep Johl of India, one of the few bearded golfers I've seen. He lists "discussing current events" as one of his hobbies. His wife caddies for him, and they argue about club selection.

* Sung-Man Lee of Korea, 25-year-old golfer who, like defending Big 10 champion Kevin Hall, is deaf.

* Tim O'Neil of the USA, who, if Tiger Woods is Cablinasian, is a Nationwide Tour pro gunning to be the first black player on the U.S. PGA Tour since the days of Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe.

(Surreal if you think about it. Discounting Woods, there are NO BLACK PLAYERS ON THE U.S. PGA TOUR AND THERE HASN'T BEEN ANY FOR YEARS.)

* Bryan Saltus of the U.S., who plays on the Asian Tour. Like Meesawat, his salt-and-pepper hair is unencumbered by a hat sponsor.

* John E. Morgan of England, who dares wears his Nike hat backwards and plays with such enthusiasm and beyond-the-status-quo charisma that a lot of the bluenoses hate him, not the least of which because his hair has been known to be dyed blue. Probably the most famous golfer on this list, he lost a playoff on the U.S. PGA tour last year to Mark Hensby in the John Deere Classic. He said that if he would've won, he would've jumped into the pond overlooking the 18th, swim out to the John Deere tractor on display in that pond, and jumped on to it and into the seat in celebration. Quite a shame we didn't get to see that. As far as I can tell, he's the U.S. PGA Tour's only real rebel (so what if Ian Poulter has spiky hair and wears Union Jack pants?).

... or "was" the U.S. PGA tour's only rebel. An epileptic, Morgan has to keep his heart rate below a certain level. Late last year, he ran to catch a plane he was about to miss. The running got his heart rate above the x-level, and a seizure on the plane followed. He broke a couple of ribs, was forced to sit out the last few tour events, and as a result finished below the magic top-125 mark to keep his full-exemption tour card. He still finished high enough to retain conditional tour status and full Nationwide tour status.

* Jarrod Lyle of Australia, who, in just his fifth tournament as a pro, was tied for the lead in the final group on the 18th in the final round of last month's Heineken Classic with Craig Parry and Nick O'Hern, one shot clear of Ernie Els. (Alas, he bogeyed the 18th and fell out of a playoff.) 23-years-old and of a Daly-esque rotund build, he spent the latter part of his teenage years undergoing chemotherapy and recovering from cancer. "Even though I didn't make the playoff, I kind of feel like I already won anyway," he said. Then tears started rolling down his cheeks.

So step well, European Tour, and don't make the arrogant, uncaring, exclusive mistakes of your more muscular brother. You have right on your side.

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