FOR players and administrators alike the most complex problems golf throws up has nothing to do with swing planes or putting strokes. It is the seemingly simple matter of scheduling.
The issue of who plays what, where and when has been in the spotlight the past two weeks as many top players have elected to skip either last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill or this week’s WGC Matchplay Championship in Texas. Or in some cases both.
The outcry last week over what was seen as a lack of respect for one of the most important figures in the game’s history was understandable but misplaced.
All those who didn’t turn up had their own legitimate reasons, the main one being preparations the upcoming Masters.
For most fans the notion of playing golf every week for large sums of money, on perfectly conditioned courses, seems like a dream come true.
But the reality is that to perform at their best, golfers need to have time off. And results would suggest quite a bit of it.
So with five of the top 64 in the world skipping this week’s WGC Match Play, and its guaranteed last place money of $49,000, the question is why?
The answer, as is often the case with professional golf, is scheduling.
In many ways the game at the top level is a victim of its own success. Each year the PGA Tour alone stages more than 40 tournaments, not including the majors, with an average winner’s cheque of more than $1 million.
Factor in the majors and that’s around 50 tournaments every year that a world top 50 ranked player is eligible for. And that’s just in America.
Even the most ardent critic wouldn’t expect a player to tee up 50 times in a year and the average for most players is probably around half that.
So the decision becomes which events to play and, more importantly, why.
For pretty much every top 50 player the focus is the majors and almost all scheduling decisions are built around trying to peak for the four Grand Slam events.
With the Masters just two weeks away all the world’s best are in final preparation mode and that neatly explains the absences of the past fortnight.
It is almost universally true of top golfers that after three to four consecutive tournaments the mind and body is simply not capable of performing at its best.
So that leaves players with a dilemma: to be ready for the Masters, something has to give.
The schedule leading up to Augusta looks like this: Genesis Open; Honda Classic; WGC Mexico Championship; Valspar Championship; Arnold Palmer Invitational; WGC Matchplay; Houston Open then The Masters.
They’re all big events and most of the players would love to play them all but that’s simply not feasible.
For many, playing the week before a major is important so the Houston Open is a given and that has put the focus firmly on the Arnold Palmer event and this week’s WGC tournament.
Ernie Els summed it up nicely when quizzed earlier in the year about the uproar over players skipping Palmer’s tournament.
“The purse is up, but then the tour has put in a World Golf Championship event last week, and guys need to rest,” he said at the Valspar.
“Then there’s a WGC event after Arnold Palmer Invitational, and then two weeks later you’ve got the Masters.
“So all of a sudden, you’ve got all these big events, and if they don’t play the world events then all hell breaks loose."
Rickie Fowler, who did play in Florida last week but won’t be in Texas, agreed it was all about the Masters.
In 2016 he skipped Bay Hill for scheduling reasons though personally visited with Palmer to explain why.
This year it is the Matchplay that he has left off the rotation as he tries to peak for the year’s first major.
"The biggest thing is you want to make sure you're ready to go at Augusta," he told AP’s Doug Ferguson earlier in the year.
It’s the common thread for all the players who’ve taken heat in the last few weeks for not turning up to tournaments and it is a problem that is out of their hands.
It is the Tour that controls the schedule but the politics and headaches from their side of the equation might be even greater than that faced by the players.
If any of the golfers who’ve been criticised for skipping one or both of the last two weeks happens to win the Masters in a fortnight, they will no doubt feel vindicated.
But if nothing changes, we will be looking at going through the whole again this time next year.