One of the best things about the Florida swing—actually, all five Tour stops in the Sunshine State—is that the events are all held on resort courses. The green fees may be obscene, the cart requirements ridiculous and the courses may be impossible for regular golfers to play with a single ball and in less than four hours. Still, watching those tournaments, on those open-to-all courses, is an invitation to, as the TV spots for golfnow.com put it in that hilarious Scottish accent, “Go play!”
Professional golf is the single most powerful tool to grow the sport, to get more people to play the game we can play till death does us part. It is critical for more people to play golf in more parts of the world because you cannot simultaneously engage in golf and engage in war. Golf makes the world a better place.
On Sunday at Doral, Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, was talking about Billy Payne’s near-decade as the chairman of Augusta National. Among the things he praised in Payne’s tenure are his grow-the-game efforts, including the two world amateur events the club initiated and the Drive, Chip & Putt contest that now concludes at Augusta on the Sunday leading into Masters week.
Finchem also talked about a new PGA Tour-LPGA partnership that most likely will result in at least one event at which Tour and LPGA players compete together. There was such a tournament for years, going back to the Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome in 1960, but there hasn’t been a similar event since 1999, when the perfect duo of John Daly and Laura Davies won the last JCPenney Classic. It was a wonderful, fluky event, and it’s high time to dust it off and bring it back. New and improved, of course.
“The growth of women in the game is absolutely crucial to our ability to grow the game and it has the most potential in our view,” Finchem said at Doral. The only group more important to the game’s future, Finchem suggested, is the 18-and-under set. “But kids are harder to figure out,” he said.
In the last 10 years of the mixed-team, the event was played at Innisbrook Resort, near Tampa, where the Tour lands this week. Last week, as part of their partnership, the Tour and the LPGA announced, in a superb example of corporate-speak, a “strategic alliance agreement” that includes the opportunity for joint marketing between the two tours. This project is being overseen by LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, and the Tour’s deputy commissioner, Jay Monahan. Whan is 51 and Monahan, the heir apparent to Finchem, is 45. They are bound to be in leadership roles in golf for many years to come, and they surely recognize that there is strength in numbers, especially in a time when the game is struggling to retain players. All enthusiasm for golf—which shows up in things like Nielsen ratings—ultimately comes from people actually playing the game.
Could the LPGA someday become part of the PGA Tour? Definitely. Finchem mentioned the possibility of “interfacing our digital business, our broadcast rights, collaborating in tapping the global marketplace.” Negotiating broadcast rights is challenging under the best of circumstances. The LPGA has never been presented on TV in a meaningful way—as compared to women’s tennis or skiing or figure skating—and working with the PGA Tour, instead of competing against it, makes sense for the women. On the other hand, the LPGA is a true global tour in ways the PGA Tour is not. There are mutual interests. Synergy, the commissioner would call it.
At Doral, Finchem gave reporters, and really anybody with access to e-mail, a playful invitation. “Everybody here should think about this: If we did have an opportunity to do something together, what would be the coolest format we could use? Because if the opportunity came up, we would want to take full advantage of it. There are different ways to do it. You could come up with a whole new format. You could do something that’s more traditional like a better-ball or a team competition. But just showing off the comparative skills, I think would be something that would be well received.”
Now that is undeniably true. In 1961, CBS staged an event called Golfing Battle of the Sexes, featuring Dow Finsterwald and Arnold Palmer against Mickey Wright and Barbara Romack on an 18-hole par-3 course, configured at the Desert Inn course in Las Vegas. The ladies won. Arnold threatened not to go to the following week’s Tour event, the Colonial, for fear of being laughed out of Fort Worth.
Finchem has the right idea here. It could be men versus women. It could be men and women playing together. It could be match play. It could be stroke play. It could be an individual competition. It could be a team competition. It could be one event or a series of events. This idea—professional men and women playing together—is so old it’s new again. The timing couldn’t be better.