Desert Duel: Dubai Deals Blow to PGA’s Hope

The European Tour stop makes the once-noteworthy Hope Classic an afterthought.

Thrash TalkIf 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.

Phil Mickelson

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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8 thoughts on “Desert Duel: Dubai Deals Blow to PGA’s Hope”

  1. I’m thinking contraction is a good idea. I know I’m hoping the HSBC is on golf channel, so I can watch it and not the bob hope. If we’re really interested in “growing the game,” then international events are the best way to do so. Golf has pretty much maxed out in America. For it to grow, requires kids from overseas picking up the game. For that to happen, they’re needs to be tourneys all around the world.

  2. The demise of Tiger in 2010 will correspond with the demise of the PGA Tour. The better players are playing Europe. I live in PDT, so I can watch the European golf before going out to play. There is more actual golf shown on the European coverage and I don’t have to listen to Michael Breed and Mark Rolfing.

  3. The players love the Middle Eastern tourney’s because the hospitality is second to none here. The courses are so unique and I think that coupled with how well I can imagine the player’s are treated is what makes them want to play there even if the money is bigger in America. I’m just in Kuwait and so I bet the tourney’s in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, and especially Dubai are every bit as good as any in the U.S. if not better.

  4. Interesting article. I don’t watch the Bob Hope. I don’t care for the format and the field is weak. I do enjoy the European Tour telecasts much more than the US telecasts. The ET TV announcers, for one, talk less and there is more actual golf on the screen and no dopey stories and vinettes by idiots like Jimmy Roberts.

  5. I have to agree with JERoethel, European golf coverage is so much better for one simple reason – they show more golf. What a concept!! Sorry, I don’t tune into golf to watch endless essays and stupid stories. Plus the golf channel seems to show far more coverage of the players putting. I like to see all the shots, from tee to green. The European tour announcers are much more professional. I’ll wake up early on weekends to watch the Euro coverage, and will generally skip out on the PGA coverage, unless it’s a higher tier event like the WGC, Majors, or the Invitationals.

    Something definitely has to be done about the state of Golf in America, and I’m not sure what the answer is. But copying the European model might not be a bad place to start.

  6. “The end of America’s third-tier events…”

    First, the Hope will survive as long as it can sell TV ads. Also, some people like to see Hollywood and other celebs playing golf. So, the celeb angle may help them hand on.

    If not, possibly the Nationwide or Hooters Tour could pick them up as a prestige event. Not sure how the second-tier US tours figure into this USA-rest of world equation. Anybody have ideas on this?

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