The Golf Channel did its best to dress up the inaugural event in the new FedEx Cup, the Mercedes-Benz Championship. Live from Maui, it was the first tournament of the cable channel's 15-year deal to televise as much golf as the PGA Tour can produce, and you could sense the eagerness to impress radiating from TGC headquarters in Orlando.
TGC dutifully reminded us that Vijay Singh's 30th victory, an easy one by two strokes over Adam Scott, was his 18th after the age of 40, thus eclipsing Sam Snead's previous record, which is an obscure, desperate stat, but gives hope to those of us dreaming of a similar awakening in the September of our years. TGC showed off its catchy new rock-and-roll theme song, which could have come straight out of "The O.C." There was a new graphic, basically Fox's old puck-tracker, but showing the break of the putt; an interview with New York Yankees manager and part-time Kapalua resident Joe Torre; background on obscure talent Will MacKenzie; and, in the commercial breaks, enough come-ons from a "male-enhancement" company to make viewers wonder if they ought to have their gear checked for spring-like effect.
But you really had to squirm in your La-Z-Boy when PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem sat down for an on-air chat with TGC hosts Kelly Tilghman and Nick Faldo, because that's when the whole thing caved in on itself. It doesn't help that Finchem exudes all the warmth of a mackerel, but the question that doomed the show, the same one that doomed the Tour Championship a few months ago, was what the commish thought about the absence of Tiger and Phil at this elite, restricted-field event.
This was not Milwaukee, Reno, Hilton Head or one of the other unlucky Tour stops routinely skipped by the two headliners. It was a paid vacation with all-you-can-eat pineapple. And yet, to put it in Torre's terms, Jeter and Giambi couldn't be bothered to leave the house. What gives? To her credit, Tilghman asked the question, and as he did in Atlanta, Finchem took his medicine, talking "candidly" of his disappointment. However, he added hopefully, their absence would lend a new wrinkle to the FedEx Cup points race, since Tiger and Phil will now have to come from behind to win. (Finchem actually said this with a straight face.)
The PGA Tour has a serious problem, a blemish that can't be concealed with good production values or interesting statistics or even the improved play of dashing Adam Scott: The Tour's two best draws have outgrown the need to play it. There's no other way to interpret what's going on. At first it was only Mickelson who would go missing from even the mega-million-dollar cash grabs, but now Woods seems to have realized that if Lefty can flash a Get Out of Fame Free pass any time, anywhere, so can he.
"I mean, you turn into a great player like Tiger, he can't even breathe from the time he walks onto the golf course to the time he gets away," Hal Sutton said recently, explaining why many American players live on the practice range. "He can't be himself. So he's trying to get in and get out." Or, in the case of East Lake and Kapalua, get out of going in. Ditto for Mickelson.
In 2001, when Mickelson still played the Mercedes, he sat in a golf cart with a wire in one ear, presumably to monitor the NFL playoffs, as he awaited the start of the final round. Never much of a wind player, he was too far behind to win, and looked like a guy who wanted to be somewhere else. And so he's changed his schedule, as has Woods, since no one knows or cares how many times Jack Nicklaus won in Hawaii. Not even Nicklaus, probably.
Finchem's new invention, the FedEx Cup, may yet make us forget all about the 2006 Tour Championship and last week's Mercedes, and let's hope it does. If nothing else, we can predict Phil and Tiger's schedules with more accuracy in 2007 than at any other time in history. We know that they will play in the Buick Invitational in two weeks, since the tournament is played at Torrey Pines, a favorite stomping ground of both men, and, as it happens, host of the '08 U.S. Open. We know they'll be at the Players Championship, which moves from March to the second week of May on the re-sodded TPC Sawgrass course. They will, of course, play in the four majors (Augusta, Oakmont, Carnoustie, Southern Hills), and in Arnie's tournament at Bay Hill in mid-March, and in Jack's at Muirfield Village the first of June, and in at least two of the three World Golf Championship events.
But now we also know they'll play in the four events in red type in the Tour media guide, because those are the four corners of the new FedEx Cup, conveniently located in the biggest markets: New York (The Barclays), Boston (Deutsche Bank), Chicago (BMW) and Atlanta (the Tour Championship). That's 14 tournaments, one short of the Tour minimum.
Mickelson will play in a few others, like the Bob Hope, and so will Woods, but there can be no denying that the schedule is weighted heavily toward late August, early September, when the FedEx points race will conclude. Don't expect to see Phil and Tiger much after that, when a half-dozen "Fall Series" events will be limited mostly to players for whom money still means something, some of whom will be struggling to keep their cards. With his two marquee guys, among others, wanting to truncate the schedule, Finchem has responded by essentially calling it quits after the last day at East Lake, September 16.
But the Tour still looks and feels bloated, clogged with supposedly important events that, no matter how Finchem or the television partners spin it, are basically meaningless. After a rich history, including Woods's playoff victory over Ernie Els in 2000, the Mercedes has become one of those events, doomed to irrelevance unless Tiger, especially, has a change of heart. For a Tour that grew too big, too fast, the commissioner seems to realize that contraction is the first step to a more potent product, and he was right to trim the fat at the end of the schedule.
It's time he start taking a hard look at the rest of it.