Amid the good times on Tour, an undercurrent of concern

Amid the good times on Tour, an undercurrent of concern

Timberlake headlined a Friday-night concert.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

If you happened to be in Las Vegas last Friday night at the concert hall within the Planet Hollywood Resort, then for one heady evening the PGA Tour felt like the center of the universe. The second round was in the books at the inaugural Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (phew!), and now the eponymous tournament host was headlining a concert to benefit the Shriners. Every player in the field had been given tickets, and in the minutes before the music began, clusters of off-duty Tour players mingled in the lobby, wolfishly eyeing the parade of talent and looking satisfied with the knowledge that this glittery evening wouldn’t be happening without their tournament.

From an anthropological standpoint it was fascinating to observe the players in a nonnative environment. Dustin Johnson, the 24-year-old rookie who was still flying high from his first victory last month, channeled Timberlake with a rakishly worn tie as part of a carefully put-together hipster ensemble. John Daly kept one hand wrapped around a bottle of beer and the other around his date. If the standard Tour-player uniform on this night was jeans, button-down shirt and cowboy boots, Brian Gay wore it with the most panache, thanks to snakeskin kicks, skintight denim, a humongous belt buckle and a bejeweled shirt unbuttoned all the way down to here. Stephen Ames had missed the cut earlier in the day, but he couldn’t swallow his grin as he pressed the flesh in the lobby. “This concert is the whole reason I played here,” said Ames. With a nod to his sons who were underfoot — Justin, 11, and Ryan, 9 — he said, “There’s no way they were going to miss this.”

The 3 1/2-hour performance lasted until 1 a.m. and included a lineup of the biggest acts in pop music, such as Rihanna, Leona Lewis, the Jonas Brothers and the group that inspired Timberlake to first pick up a microphone, the ’90s sensation Boyz II Men. Timberlake blew the roof off with a raucous closing set during which at various times he shared the stage with Adam Levine of Maroon 5, of the Black Eyed Peas, 50 Cent and, not least, Lionel Richie. At the start of the concert Timberlake addressed the crowd, thanking it for helping to raise more than $1 million for the Shriners. Singling out the Tour players in the audience, he also mocked despair over all the birdies that were being made at TPC Summerlin during daylight hours. Said Timberlake, who looked like a credible single-digit handicapper during the Wednesday pro-am, “You guys make me sick!” If a dude who wakes up in the morning next to Jessica Biel can be moved to jealousy, then the PGA Tour as an institution must be doing something right.

In fact, the flashy concert was of a piece with a successful debut for this reconstituted tournament. Timberlake’s star power was a factor in attracting a stronger-than-usual field, but so too was dropping the tedious weeklong pro-am format and the cumbersome multicourse arrangement. The weather was perfect, the putting surfaces were as smooth as the green felt of a blackjack table, and the $4.1 million purse covered plenty of gambling losses.

The modern Tour has always been a make-believe world of easy money, all-you-can-eat buffets and gleaming courtesy cars — in Las Vegas, they were all Audis — but even with the respite of a night of revelry, there was an ominous feeling in the air last week.

By any name the Vegas Tour stop has always been about cold, hard cash because the tournament comes in the dying weeks of the season when many are playing for their livelihoods. This year’s stressfest was compounded by larger developments, which have left much of the Tour fretting about the future.

“We’re like everybody else — all we’re talking about is the economy, the election and a little bit about the Rays,” says Davis Love III, who tied for sixth, his second top 10 in three Fall Series events. Except for the World Series-bound Rays, these are troubling topics for Tour players. Paul Azinger estimated last week that his colleagues are 99% Republican (and that may be a conservative number) primarily because the players vote their pocketbooks. An analysis by the Tax Policy Center, recently cited in Rolling Stone, estimated that for those who make more than $1 million a year — which, including endorsements, is pretty much the entire Tour — the out-of-pocket difference between the tax plans of Barack Obama and John McCain is nearly $270,000. If Obama rides his lead in the polls to victory next month, Tour players will be feeling pain that is more than ideological.

The meltdowns on Wall Street and in the banking industry have also resonated deeply on Tour. Eleven of this year’s title sponsors and three presenting sponsors are drawn from the financial services industry. The Tour’s putative sixth major, the Wachovia Championship, is already suffering an identity crisis. On Oct. 3 Wells Fargo bought the faltering Wachovia Corp. in a coupling of megabanks.

Earlier this year Wachovia signed an extension to continue its sponsorship of the Charlotte-based tournament through 2014. Wells Fargo is obligated to honor the contract, but uncertainty about all the details has compelled tournament officials to stop the presses on printing tickets and promotional materials.

“If you’re not at least a little bit worried about our sponsor situation, then you’ve been hiding under a rock,” says Azinger.

Or you’re PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who is paid to be an optimist. “We’ve seen this before in the last 20 years,” Finchem says, “but when there have been other recessions, the Tour has maintained sponsorship at nearly 100 percent and in some ways has been strengthened. No question corporate expenditures are now being scrutinized more than ever, but I believe that helps us because companies get great value with our product and the unique audience we attract.” More to the point, every title sponsor on Tour is signed through at least 2010, which means the schedule (and prize money) will remain unaffected in the short term.

But the sagging economy is already being felt by tournaments on next year’s West Coast swing. Officials for the Sony Open in Hawaii report having lost a half-dozen longtime corporate supporters, and the title sponsor of the FBR Open, a financial-services company, has already made it known that it will be entertaining less during tournament week in Scottsdale, Ariz. The biggest effect of this downsizing will be on the charities supported by the individual tournaments, since their money comes out of the net proceeds, which are propped up by corporate schmoozing.

The players are already coming face-to-face with the harsh realities of the current financial climate. “Our economy is sound — it’s everybody else who’s hurting,” says Love. “I played in the pro-am this week with a car dealer and an investment banker. They’re feeling the pain. I mean, I have 10 buddies who worked at Lehman Brothers. Jeez, we have it made compared with those guys. My wife asked me why I was playing all six Fall Series events. It’s because the money’s out there, but you have to go get it.”

Love is fifth on the alltime money list, with more than $36 million, and lives pretty large, but thinking ahead to next year, he says, “I’m definitely looking to cut back. The easy way to do that is the [private] plane. Right now guys are spending $200,000, $300,000 a year to $1 million-plus. It’s definitely a luxury.”

Some players have already begun to downsize, according to Ed Lynch, the player liaison for Sentient Jet, the official private jet company of the Tour. “We’ve seen players start to change their habits a little,” Lynch says. “If they make the cut, they fly private on the way home; if they miss the cut, they fly commercial. Everybody’s being cautious about their spending.”

Prize money may be insulated from the downturn, but that’s not the case in the endorsement market, where the climate is quickly changing. Says David Winkle, an agent at Hambric Sports Management, “A month ago we were closing in on a deal with a major automobile manufacturer for one of our players. When the stock market began declining sharply, everything stopped. The company went from putting it on the back burner to totally pulling the plug in a matter of weeks.”

The easy money from equipment deals, long taken for granted by the players, is also beginning to dry up, or at least that’s the word on the practice tee. (The manufacturers love free publicity, but it is a measure of their current jitteriness that reps from Nike and Titleist declined to comment for this article.) The rich will always get richer — Anthony Kim is the biggest free agent this off-season, and Nike is expected to break the bank to re-sign him — but members of the Tour’s middle class are a lot more expendable. “The journeyman pros are likely to get squeezed,” says Brad Buffoni, an agent at SFX Sports, which manages three dozen Tour players. “I think the days are gone when having a PGA Tour card meant someone would automatically give you a silly amount of money. The basic tenets of sports marketing need to matter more now. Results, personality, the whole package must be there.”

For all these rumblings, Vegas was a reminder that the Tour can present an artistic and commercial success even in the toughest times. The local housing market has been hit hard, but corporate entertaining increased 10% over last year, and gate attendance was up a whopping 50%, thanks mostly to the tireless promotional efforts of Timberlake and his presence during tournament week. He was the star of the Wednesday pro-am, clowning with his friend Ellen DeGeneres and eliciting squeals from the large gallery, which skewed young and female. Afterward, Timberlake said it was his “mission” to persuade more of his A-list pals to play in the years ahead. He was back on the property last Saturday afternoon for a clinic alongside Butch Harmon, conducted at a packed range in front of oodles of Shriners patients and First Tee kids who had been bused in for the occasion. Fred Couples dropped by to donate his time and expertise, a nice gesture from a superstar who probably would have preferred to rest his aching back.

On sunday the fans were treated to a lively birdie binge by the leaders, and the tournament got a nice winner in Marc Turnesa. Timberlake was on hand to present the trophy, which also came with $738,000. Everyone was all smiles, and for a minute it was easy to believe the good times would never end. As long as Tiger Woods gets healthy and stays hungry, there is no doubt that the Tour will survive this downturn, and it may even prosper, as Finchem hopes. But the age of excess is already over, even if the players are only beginning to realize it.

“Our job is no longer simply about hitting golf shots,” says Tom Pernice, a 23-year veteran. “We need to do everything we can as players to help these companies maximize their investment in the Tour. That means in the pro-am we have to engage their clients and their guests. It means doing the little things, like stopping by corporate tents to shake hands or volunteering for clinics. It’s going to take a different mind-set from all of us, especially from the younger guys.”

As Pernice left Vegas, he was looking ahead to a players’ meeting at this week’s Open. “You can guess what is going to be the Number 1 topic,” he said.