The Nation's Pulse

A Tournament Too Far

The PGA rich get richer -- and more centralized and bored.

By 11.2.06

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Them that has, gets, goes the old saying. That generally provides a reliable motivation for organizational behavior. You give good salespeople bonuses, and they sell more. But what happens when your best salespeople just say, "No, thanks. Got plenty of money. Rather take a rest. Call me next time"?

That's what's happened to the PGA Tour, the organization of professional tournament golfers. In the best "them that has, gets" fashion, the Tour has created both a season-ending and season-beginning tournament with huge prizes, designed to attract all the top talent and all the most popular players in terms of TV ratings. The season kicks off with the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, its field limited to those players who have won a tournament in the previous year. There is no cut, the field is small, and dead last pays something like $50,000.

At season's end comes the Tour Championship, limited to the top 30 money winners. Everybody plays, and the total purse is north of $6 million. It gets wall-to-wall TV, and the PGA Tour, the organizer of the tournament ("presented by Coca-Cola"), rakes it in.

This year, however, everybody is not going to play. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the two most telegenic players in golf, the two players most responsible for the flood of sponsor money coming into pro golf, have declined to show up. Woods ranks number one in money earned, Mickelson, number four. In world rankings, Woods is one, Mickelson is three.

Woods has committed to three other tournaments in the next couple of months. Mickelson, for the last several years, has simply taken the winter off. They're both as rich as Croesus.

What's a tour commissioner to do?

THE PGA TOUR COMMISSIONER'S JOB is to make deals that make money for the Tour and for players, and current commissioner Tim Finchem has done an excellent job. When I started watching golf, in about 1991, the top prize for most tournaments was $140,000. The number 125 prize-earner (the last man eligible for Tour exemption) earned about $125,000 in prize money for the year.

Today, first place in a PGA tournament pays from $800,000 to more than a million, and the minimum amount required to stay eligible in the top 125 is about $600,000. That's all Finchem's doing, writing deals for new sponsors, new tournaments, and new TV broadcast deals. And what is Finchem selling to these new sponsors? Primarily, Tiger Woods, and, to an extent, Woods' rivalry with Phil Mickelson.

And, no mistake, when Tiger doesn't play, the TV ratings fall, and when TV ratings fall, the advertising rates fall, too.

Tiger and Phil are not going to play. The Tour Championship may well be won by somebody named Lucas Glover or Brett Wetterich.

And there's not a damned thing Finchem can do about it.

THIS YEAR, FINCHEM, AND GOLF IN GENERAL, may have reached just a bit too far, trying to make the ultimate deal. Indeed, Finchem's office has announced a kind of unified field theory of pro golf competition, to be known as the Fedex Cup, in which points are awarded for every tournament result, with some tournaments more to be desired than others because of extra points, and at the end of it, there'll be this great big playoff, see, kind of like baseball, where you have a solid month of competition, and at the end of it all, involving all the great players from all over the world, you'll have a world champion. Yay!

Greg Norman once proposed such a thing and got roundly slapped down by the PGA powers-that-were at the time. Indeed, the commercial purveyors of golf have always dreamed of a kind of Holy Grail of world competition. Only problem is, it won't work.

It takes all the little from-the-ground-up tournaments all over the country to create talent and make a season and make the world of golf. Alone among major sports, golf has no set boundaries or sizes for its arenas. There are even local rules, lots of them. If the commish is so hot for TV ratings, perhaps he might consider fielding a tournament based on players' Q ratings, for video attractiveness.

In creating his Fedex Cup series, Finchem has ridden roughshod over a whole bunch of local tournaments, eliminating them here, rescheduling them there, without a by-your-leave to the thousands of regional entrepreneurs who help make golf what it is. For the first time in 30 years, ABC will not broadcast any golf -- say goodbye to a whole team of beloved announcers. Every tournament next year will be broadcast Thursday and Friday on the Golf Channel, no more ESPN, USA, or TNT. Abracadabera, grant another monopoly. It all runs against the grain. From top to bottom, golf is a sport of individual contractors, from Tiger Woods down through the concessionaires at the 84 Lumber Classic (one of the tournaments wiped out by Finchem). And if they don't want to show up, they don't have to. Finchem's new scheme has arguably wiped out entrepreneurial incentive from the world of golf by pulling everything under central control.

I predict it will not work, and some way will be found to back off, a year or two hence.

Meantime the fair thing would be to open up two more places in the Tour Championship for numbers 31 and 32 on the money list, Jose Maria Olazabal and Tim Clark, respectively. But I'll just bet the PGA Tour won't do that.

It'll serve Tim Finchem right if the tourney gets won -- as is not unlikely, the guy's playing hot golf -- by K. J. Choi, who barely speaks English.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.