HONOLULU (AP) — Given these tough economic times, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has asked players to pitch in by adding tournaments to their schedules. Perhaps he should have been more clear.
He meant tournaments in the United States.
Anthony Kim makes his 2010 debut this week in a tournament that includes Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogilvy, who will be going for his second consecutive victory. They will be competing against a world-class field that features defending champion Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy.
You can find them in the desert – at the Abu Dhabi Championship.
Halfway around the world in the California desert, the Bob Hope Classic begins Wednesday. It is the first PGA Tour event on the mainland, is desperate to find a title sponsor and does not have a single player among the top 35 in the world ranking. Once a premier event on the West Coast Swing, last year it had the second-weakest field among regular PGA Tour events.
“It’s not something we like to see,” said John Foster, president of the Bob Hope Classic. “We’ve always had to deal with it in some shape or form. It behooves us to make this tournament as attractive as we can. We still have a good field off last year’s money list. We have no top 10s, and we’re disappointed in that. We still have some great players. It is what it is.”
PGA Tour members require a “conflicting event release” to compete overseas. The guidelines allow for three releases a year, with additional releases for international players who want to play on their home circuits.
It is rare for the tour to grant so many releases – nine in this case – to one tournament. Alarms are sounded when that tournament is the same week as a U.S. event that once had tradition and now has no title sponsor. One guideline says the commissioner can deny a request if it would “otherwise significantly and unreasonably harm” the tour and its sponsors.
But let’s be practical about this.
All nine releases were granted to players who are European Tour members. Six of those players are Europeans, all of whom began their careers on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Remember, guys like Sergio and Paul Casey, they chose to come over here and play,” British Open champion Stewart Cink said. “If they chose to stay in Europe, we wouldn’t even be having a conversation like that.”
Ogilvy has not played the Hope in five years. Villegas has never played it at all.
What brings the Hope’s field so much attention is the absence of Kim, who spent his high school years in the Coachella Valley and was given a sponsor’s exemption to play when he was a rookie with limited opportunies. Kim is trying to manage a worldwide schedule. Skipping what amounts to a hometown tournament is not going to win him additional fans.
Rick George, the tour’s chief of operations, said nine releases were given opposite the Hope last year. He also noted the number of players who stayed two weeks in Hawaii, which made the Sony Open stronger. Others are adding Pebble Beach to the schedule this year with the U.S. Open coming in June.
“I’d like to think it’s just an anomaly,” George said. “But that doesn’t make it any better for the Bob Hope Classic.”
Appearance money is an issue, too, but that’s been around forever and is a convenient excuse.
“When you give ‘show-up’ fees in Europe, that poses a problem,” Foster said. “That’s an issue for the West Coast. I wish the European Tour wouldn’t do that. But that’s how they try to attract players.”
Kenny Perry, a past Bob Hope champion who is skipping this year, received an offer to play the Qatar Masters next week.
The issue takes on heightened awareness because of the economy. Consider the San Diego Open, which didn’t find a title sponsor until a week before its tournament, which is the first on network TV and usually gets Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
How much tougher is it for a tournament to attract a sponsor when it can’t get anyone in the top 30?
Joe Ogilvie, a former policy board member who received an exemption to the Hope this year, believes the PGA Tour nonetheless should put its foot down on conflicting event releases on certain weeks.
“I would take an extremely hard line,” Ogilvie said. “As a commissioner, you’ve got to say, ‘No.’ What are they going to say? ‘I’m going to play Europe (full-time)?’ But for whatever reason, he doesn’t do it.”
Ogilvie said the tour could make it up to the player by building a TV campaign around him, exposure that would be appealing for endorsements and could pay off more than whatever appearance money is being offered.
Cink, another former board member, leans the other way.
“I don’t fault the players for going over to play somewhere that may pay them appearance money,” Cink said. “We don’t get appearance money very often. Kenny Perry is a good example. He’s going to Qatar. You have a situation where a guy has played out here his whole life and probably hasn’t gotten a whole lot of appearance money. To go and collect a little bit, can you really say, ‘Don’t do that?’
“I understand that it’s difficult to find sponsors right now,” Cink said. “There’s no real solution.”
There’s only a harsh reality for the Hope.
It used to be rookies never played the Bob Hope Classic because so many spots were taken by top players. This year, the tournament went 32 deep into the Nationwide/Q-school category to fill its field.