It was high noon last Saturday at the Transitions Championship when tournament host Sheila Johnson made her pitch for Tiger Woods. The day was as pretty as a postcard, all sunny skies and soft breezes. Spanish moss dangled from the branches above while pine needles were neatly spread on the ground below. The Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, near Tampa, snaked through the woods and was doing its part to complete the vision, earning raves from the players even as it was killing them gently.
"I want to get Tiger here," said Johnson, who owns the 900-acre resort, which last year underwent a $25 million renovation. "We'd like to have the best."
Until that day comes, Johnson, like so many other tournament hosts on the PGA Tour, does what she can to sell her event, hoping that word of mouth, fortuitous scheduling and even divine intervention will conspire to bring Woods and the other top-ranked players to her tee box.
Strength of field, or in the case of the Transitions, lack of it, is an issue that is front and center in today's sagging economy, with hard-pressed sponsors being forced to justify the outlay of as much as $8 million for golf amid worldwide belt-tightening. More than once this season some players and a majority of tournament officials have suggested that the Tour adopt a rule mandating pros to enter an event once every four or five years, a policy that is already in effect on the LPGA tour, which requires its players to enter each event on the schedule at least once every four years.
"Why should we have sponsors leave because you don't get a good field?" says 28-year Tour veteran Fred Couples. "We're losing people. We have some great CEOs who love golf, but they're also smart. They [sponsor a tournament] for five years and realize they aren't getting the bang for their buck.
"I think Tiger is blessed enough to see it," Couples adds. "[He'll say,] 'I'll go play there once.' It isn't going to kill him. It would help the sponsors."
Others say such a plan would never fly with players who tailor their schedules to win certain tournaments or maintain exempt status. "In theory it would make sense, but in reality it wouldn't," says Tom Lehman, who like Couples will soon be heading for the Champions tour. (Nevertheless, Lehman tied for eighth at the Transitions.) "I don't think there is any way you can tell guys where they have to play. Guys tend to play courses that fit their games. There's no reason to play Hilton Head if you're hitting it 350 [yards] and sideways." As an alternative, Lehman suggests that the Tour schedule should be adjusted. "We ought to rotate the schedule so that some tournaments fall in spots where you know that guys are going to want to play. That would help."
Johnson is only in her second year as a tournament host, but plenty has transpired in that short time. A year ago PODS opted out of the sponsorship of the tournament after just two playings, leaving tournament officials scrambling to find a new sponsor or risk losing the event. Transitions Optical signed on at the 11th hour, agreeing to a four-year deal and keeping a major sporting event in the Tampa area intact, albeit a major sporting event without star attractions such as Woods (the No. 1-ranked player in the world), Phil Mickelson (No. 2), Sergio Garcia (No. 3), Geoff Ogilvy (No. 4) or Padraig Harrington (No. 5).
"I know you have to have those key players who are going to bring in the crowds, especially during these times," says Johnson, who thinks a mandatory playing rotation is a terrific idea. "What I'm concerned about is making sure we have enough foot traffic, because that is what's going to service the charities in the communities. They're suffering. The need out there is greater than it's ever been."
Paul Goydos, another Tour veteran, seconds Johnson's concern. "We did $125 million in charity [in 2008], and we don't want that number to start to go down," he says. Goydos mocks those players who might resist a mandatory-play rule by saying, "'Oh, no, we have to play another $6 million event. Poor us.'"
One person who did show up at Innisbrook was PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who made the trip across Florida from Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach. Finchem has been on the go more than usual this year, missing only two Tour stops so far. (He says he plans to hit the road for five of the next six weeks.) Because of the economy Finchem has been especially hands-on, and earlier in the year he asked the players to add events to their schedules as well as make a greater effort to interact with sponsors, fans, volunteers and the media. But he stopped short of mandating that players enter events on a rotating basis.
"On the surface it sounds like, That's great, let's do that and it will fix all our problems," Finchem says. "But it's more complicated than that in terms of certain weeks. And are you really going to make every player play every tournament? The system has worked pretty well with players having flexibility and being able to determine what works for them. We put the tournaments out there and make them attractive for the players. It's our job to entice them. The problem in today's world is that there are so many good tournaments. We caused our own problem. We'll keep an eye on it. The environment obviously argues for doing everything you can for our sponsors, and that's what we're trying to do."
Early indications are that Finchem's call for players to add tournaments has had mixed results, at least among the top 20 in the World Ranking. Other than injured and non-Tour members, for every top 20 pro who has played more in 2009 than last year (Ernie Els and Adam Scott, three extra starts; Harrington, two; Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker, one), there is more than one who has played less or the same as in '08 (Paul Casey, Jim Furyk and Mike Weir, two fewer starts; Anthony Kim, one; Garcia, Mickelson, Ogilvy and Camilo Villegas, the same).
Mickelson is on the record as saying that a one-in-four mandate isn't realistic in the age of a 43-event Tour season that runs from January through November. "Arnold [Palmer] and Jack [Nicklaus], playing in the 1960s and '70s, had only 26 to 28 events," says Mickelson.
Brandt Snedeker, who has made seven starts so far this year, one less than at this point in '08, sees both sides of the argument. "You tell our sponsors that one out of every five years you get Tiger and Phil, it sells our sport even better," he says. "But you do run into a gray area for the guys who aren't accustomed to playing the week before or after a major. Plus, they'd have to hire a statistician to figure it out."
Woods was not at Innisbrook, but he made news anyway when the day before the first round of the Transitions it was announced that he would receive $3 million to play in the Australian Masters in November. Some Australians decried the appearance fee as excessive and wasteful. Stuart Appleby and John Senden, two Aussies playing at Innisbrook last week, guessed that the economic impact to the state of Victoria and the city of Melbourne would far exceed Woods's price tag (about half of which Woods will leave in Australia in the form of taxes anyway).
But Woods's announcement was also a reminder of the power of his presence or, in the case of the Transitions Championship, his absence. Johnson hopes to fix that and pointed to the long list of amenities at Innisbrook, from child-care services and a new spa to the beautiful beast called Copperhead. There was one more perk too.
"Have you heard," she wondered, "about our cheeseburgers?"