If you needed any more evidence of where the game of pro golf sits in 2011, look no further than this week's two headlining tournaments.
The PGA Tour returns to the mainland after two ho-hum weeks in Hawaii for the once ballyhooed Bob Hope Classic. It should be a fan favorite, with movie stars, musicians and athletes playing alongside some of the best golfers in the world. A big chunk of the country is buried in snow and craving a golf fix, even if it's staring at pretty green fairways during the commercials of the NFL playoffs.
So where are four of the top five players in the world teeing it up this week? In the desert of the United Arab Emerites, half a world away, at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell will be dueling for the $2 million purse, in a field that reads more like a major than a standard stop on the European Tour.
The PGA Tour should be concerned for two reasons this week. The first is just how strong the level of competition is getting overseas, with the upward trajectory of guys like Kaymer, Westwood, Rory McIlroy and the Molinari brothers all spurning the riches of the American tour for the comforts and nationalistic pride of playing close to home. It takes a while to roll down the list of buzz-worthy budding stars before you get to Americans such as Ricky Fowler or Dustin Johnson. Would the European Tour stack up top to bottom head to head? It's unlikely, but right now we're talking star power and eyeballs, not who would win in a head-to-head match between the guy ranked 80th on each tour's money list.
The second nightmare for the PGA Tour is that the Bob Hope, once a destination event, has become little more than a tournament on par with the Fall Series, with just two players in the field ranking in the world Top 40. Two! Is it the purse? Hard to blame that when it's $5 million, well ahead of Abu Dhabi. Is it a series of golf courses that are far from testing, especially once you add in the concessions made for the amateurs? Is it the pro-am format that should be a fan favorite but which drives the players mad? I guess it's like the Celtics sending each of their starting five to play on Saturday morning men's league teams, in the name of growing the game. Or Mike the CPA inviting a couple folks who enjoy Turbo Tax to come bang out some returns the first week in April.
The Bob Hope is simply the poor man's version of the AT&T, on the schedule in a few weeks. The Hope is a step below the tour's premier pro-am, held at Pebble Beach, played on a better course and with higher profile celebrities, without the distraction of the NFL playoffs. Is there any reason for two pro-ams this early in the year? It's a perfect illustration of the state of the PGA Tour right now. The AT&T is a have and the Hope has devolved into a Have Not. No Woods, no Mickelson, no McDowell, and no cache. The biggest name at the Hope is Bob Hope, and he's not going to be making any birdies this week.
I'm all for tradition, but in a free market setting, the Hope isn't keeping up. Would it help if players were obligated to play each event every few years, as was pitched last year? I think so. But it wouldn't solve the issue of many of the game's biggest names choosing to the European Tour over the riches in America, where purses are routinely double or triple those across the pond.
While I believe whole heartedly that there should be requirements put into place that fills fields with more top-name talent, I stand firm against the idea of appearance fees. But so long as the Tour doesn't push certain guys (Woods and Mickelson) into certain events, it weakens the Tour as a whole. The truth is that Tim Finchem might not be signing off on a check to Woods or Mickelson, but it's undeniable that they're getting sponsorship money that effectively serves as money to show up. Woods long played all the Buick events, so long as their emblem was stamped on his bag. Mickelson's front and center at everything Barclay's has ever put its name on. Anthony Kim is the same way with Royal Bank of Canada.
I'm as much for capitalism as anyone, and that's one of golf's greatest attributes, knowing players need to perform to get paid. Unlike baseball, where you can sign a five-year, $80 million deal and bat .250 for half a decade with no recourse, in golf if you miss 20 cuts, you're essentially working for free those 20 weeks. The complication is the sponsorship money, and it's up to the Tour to figure out a way to even the playing field - not among the players, but among the tournaments.
So long as the Hope is competing not only with the rest of the PGA Tour schedule for attention and players, as so long as events like this week's in Abu Dhabi can shell out a reported million bucks to Mickelson, and in the process getting all four defending major champions on the first tee, it will spell the end of America's third tier events and it's only a matter of time until we have either a global tour, contraction of the PGA schedule, or probably both.
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