Was the death of Denver's Tour stop an aberration, or a foreshadowing of other shutdowns?

Friday March 9th, 2007

It was creepy quiet last Friday morning at Castle Pines Golf Club. Jack Vickers, the club's 81-year-old founder and president, stared out a clubhouse window at snow-covered fairways and greens. There was no 18th-hole grandstand, no giant leader board and no throng of sunburned spectators with cardboard tickets dangling from their necks.

\n"The community is really going to miss this thing," Vickers said, referring to the International, the quirky, classy and ultimately undervalued golf tournament that the onetime oil baron established 21 years ago at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The day before, at the Denver Athletic Club,

Vickers and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had delivered the bad news: The International, unable to find a title sponsor, was canceled, and Denver's spot on the Tour calendar -- the first week of July -- was up for grabs.

\nDid the International have to die? Vickers thought not. But as he turned away from the window, he considered a bleaker landscape than the one outside. "There's a sense of greediness in the air," he said. He was ready to begin the postmortem.

\nBut first, a few words about the departed. The International, held in August, had a rakish charm, a certain je ne sais quoi. It was the only event of any stature to be played under the modified Stableford scoring system, a points-per-hole scheme that forced players to take off the training wheels and fire at pins. The mountain platform made shots fly farther and produced glorious sunsets. The pros didn't like the way the peaks played afternoon peekaboo with violent thunderstorms, but they raved about the Castle Pines hospitality, from the famous milk shakes served in the locker room to the fishing trips arranged by the club's staff. "It's not the normal grind on Tour," said 2000 champion Ernie Els, who made his second PGA Tour start at the 1991 International and promptly swore fealty to Vickers. Tour player Chris Perry once said, "If I had only one round of golf to play and two meals to eat, it would be at Castle Pines."

Since the turn of the millennium, however, professional golf has changed. It is now accepted, for instance, that there are two kinds of Tour events -- those with Tiger Woods in the field and those without. (Woods, who last played in the International in 1999, holds the key to television ratings. In his absence the International's ratings have sagged to around 1.8 points from a '98 high of 4.1.) It is equally clear that the market for televised golf is saturated. When the International debuted in 1986, only 34 Tour events were shown on television. Now every round of all 46 tournaments is televised by CBS, NBC, ABC or Golf Channel. Television also accommodates the Champions tour, the Nationwide tour, the LPGA, the European tour and a plethora of silly-season trifles.

\nVickers, a decorous gadfly with a propensity for straight talk, has pressed Finchem to address these problems. "I don't want it to sound like sour grapes," Vickers said at Castle Pines, "but we're ignoring the law of supply and demand. People are sick and tired of looking at golf. The ratings prove it." Flirting with blasphemy, Vickers proposed that the Tour simply stop televising its lower-echelon tournaments. "Now you start to tighten up the market, and your advertising is worth something," he said.

\nThe Tiger problem is not so easily resolved, the clubman conceded, because Woods can't possibly satisfy the demand for his services. But Vickers thinks Finchem should discipline star players -- or independent contractors, as they like to be known -- who willfully skip certain venues year after year, weakening the fields. "If that happened," he said, "this crap would stop."

\nInsiders say that the Vickers-Finchem relationship, while outwardly cordial, is not what it used to be. Vickers went to Finchem last year with a make-or-break plan to save the International by putting up a Tour-record $10 million first prize, but the commissioner was strangely unresponsive. Finchem was stalling, it turned out, because the entire Tour schedule was about to change with the advent of the new FedEx Cup points race, which has its own $10 million payoff. Vickers, in turn, shocked Finchem by rejecting the Tour's offer to move the International to late August or September as one of the three high-profile elimination tournaments leading up to the Tour Championship. That placement, most insiders believed, would probably have drawn Woods and two-time International champion Phil Mickelson back to Denver. More recently Finchem offered to subsidize a scaled-down version of the International this summer, to give Vickers more time to find a title sponsor. Vickers's answer was the same: no.

"Jack doesn't take too well to somebody telling him what to do," explains one Castle Pines member. But Vickers insisted on Friday that pique had nothing to do with his refusals. The September date was no good, he said, because "golf can't compete against football. NFL exhibition games -- exhibition games! -- get a rating of 5, 6 or 7 versus a 1 or 2 for golf." The subsidy offer was even less attractive, he said, because he would have had to sign a note for the loan amount, "and I wasn't going to run the club into debt." Neither was he willing to stage an International with fewer flowers, looser security, cheaper food and a watered-down field. "I'm not worth a damn running a second-class tournament," he said. "If I can't do it right, I don't want to do it." He added, "My membership feels the same way."

It wasn't until last week, though, that Vickers and tournament director Larry Thiel folded their hands. The end came when negotiations with a potential title sponsor, believed to be Ford, broke on the usual fault line -- the prospect of woeful TV ratings. "For 21 years we never asked the Tour for help getting a sponsor," Vickers said. "We had them lining up at the door." He shook his head. "The saddest part, for me, is the employees who lose their jobs and the charities that are cut off from what they've been getting for 20 years. It's not pleasant."

At the press conference Vickers had sprinkled pixie dust on Denver reporters, saying, "Hopefully this is not the end of the International tournament. When time and conditions are right, I think that we'll be back here." Now, however, he conceded that it was probably wishful thinking. "We're here," he said. "The assets are here. But it's not our move." If anything, he saw his tournament as the canary in the coal mine -- the first to fall off the perch, but no different from a dozen other Tour events suffering from Tiger Deficiency Syndrome and low ratings. "I'm trying to be helpful to Tim, who's a good friend," Vickers said, "but if something isn't done, you're not going to have a Tour. Right now it's a one-man show."

And that man, he could easily grasp, is not Jack Vickers.

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