By Tony Jimenez
(Reuters) - Spanish Golf Federation president Gonzaga Escauriaza says it is "a great pity" his country will host just one European Tour event next year, compared to a total of seven in 2011.
Spain was the jewel in the tour's crown two years ago but the economic crisis in the Iberian nation has had a profound effect on top-level golf with sponsors disappearing and prize funds being withdrawn.
The Andalucia Open, Mallorca Open, Castello Masters in Valencia, Madrid Masters and Andalucia Masters have all fallen by the wayside while the World Match Play Championship will shift to Bulgaria next year - leaving the Spanish Open to fly the flag on its own in April.
"We are going through a big crisis in this country and we have to work very hard in order to keep the game going," Escauriaza told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"It's a great pity because for so many years Spain staged six or seven events. It's going to be difficult to recover this situation in the future."
Escauriaza, who has been federation president since December 2008, said the biggest disappointment was the loss of the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama, a tournament won by Sergio Garcia in 2011.
The Sotogrande course staged the Ryder Cup in 1997, when captain Seve Ballesteros led Europe to victory, and also used to be the traditional venue for the end-of-season Volvo Masters before it was usurped by the Dubai World Championship from 2009.
"The saddest loss is Valderrama," said Escauriaza. "That was a big event, it was like a meeting place for the top golfers in Europe and it had a lot of history.
"We are trying hard to bring that one back in the future but the one in Mallorca is finished and Valencia is a hopeless cause as they are really suffering from the economic crisis there.
"As for the Andalucia Open we spoke last week to (former promoter) Miguel Angel Jimenez. He is trying hard to get some sponsors back but it's difficult there too."
Escauriaza said that staging a European Tour event at Valderrama had lots of positive spinoffs for the region of Andalucia.
"Valderrama was a huge event with big prize money and it was expensive to run but it also brought a lot of tourists to southern Spain," he explained.
"The tournament was really an investment rather than an expenditure. Valderrama made a big impact and people remember the Ryder Cup being staged there.
"Also, by general European standards, the crowds were quite big. People used to come from all over Spain for that tournament and it was something very special for Andalucia."
Escauriaza said Spanish golf's woes were symptomatic of the widespread golfing problems on the continent.
"Spain is not the only country suffering financially. Portugal and Italy are also having a hard time and the tour can find much more money in South Korea, China, Malaysia - all over Asia.
"The tour is getting more and more of a presence in Asia than in Europe where countries are lowering prize money, losing sponsors and some of the tournaments are disappearing.
"Some of the fields we are getting in the lesser events in Europe are quite poor now compared to U.S. PGA Tour standards."
Europe's elite players are competing more and more on the U.S. circuit including world number one Rory McIlroy, third-ranked Luke Donald, number four Lee Westwood and fifth-ranked Justin Rose.
"A lot of the players feel the fields are better in America, the prize money is bigger and of course there are more world ranking points on offer," said Escauriaza.
"If you want to play against the world's best players you have to go to America because the Americans like to remain at home, they don't travel too much.
"Once this financial crisis is over it would be good to get more events in European countries again. We don't know when that might be but we've got to stay hopeful."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)