Greenbrier Classic provides glimmer of hope for PGA Tour facing economic uncertainty

Greenbrier Classic provides glimmer of hope for PGA Tour facing economic uncertainty

Jim Furyk is the highest-ranked player this week at the Greenbrier.
Darren Carroll/SI

At first glance, this week's inaugural Greenbrier Classic at the Old White Course in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., would seem to be an entirely positive sign for the PGA Tour.

In year one without Buick as a title sponsor, the Tour found corporate backing for its tournament at San Diego's Torrey Pines (Farmers Insurance) and replaced the old Buick Open in Flint, Mich., with the Greenbrier.

Given the state of the economy, that's no small feat, and it protects the livelihoods of the Tour's rank-and-file types who don't get into the majors and the World Golf Championship events. (Jim Furyk, fifth in the World Ranking, and Matt Kuchar, 24th, are the highest-ranked players in the Greenbrier field.)

But with so much economic uncertainty, with Tiger Woods a shell of his former self, and with the Tour set to begin negotiations on its new TV contract with CBS and NBC in 2011, you have to wonder if Commissioner Tim Finchem hasn't simply postponed an inevitable contraction of both prize money and schedule.

"I just don't think golf will ever get back to where it was," journeyman Jay Williamson said in a New York Times Magazine story, 'The Tiger Bubble,' in late March. "I think we've worn some of our sponsors out, and I just don't think in this kind of economic environment we're going to attract the kind of money we did in the glory days. I hope I'm wrong, but I just feel it."

The article was not well received by Tour brass, but the fact remains that having plugged the holes in late January (Torrey) and July (Greenbrier), Finchem still has much to do. There are as yet no 2011 title sponsors for the Bob Hope, Hilton Head, St. Jude, Reno-Tahoe and up to a half dozen other tournaments.

The economy doesn't help, nor does the fact that we are adrift in "a tour season that has lacked much pizzazz," as Larry Bohannan of the (Palm Springs) Desert Sun put it recently. Aside from Phil Mickelson's 6-iron through the goal posts at Augusta, is there another shot from 2010 that we will remember? (Rory McIlroy's 62nd shot Sunday at Quail Hollow, perhaps.)

With the exception of the Masters, Mickelson has not been himself on the course, most likely owing to distractions related to wife Amy's ongoing battle with breast cancer.

For different but equally obvious reasons, Tiger Woods has totally lost his game. His three-shot victory at last year's Buick Open, one of his six victories in 2009, gave the tournament a 167-percent boost in the ratings over 2008. This year he's failed to win at all, juicing the TV ratings only with an acutely painful speech in front of the blue velvet curtains in February.

Without Woods in contention, the British Open earlier this month wound up with the lowest-rated final round in history, an inauspicious beginning for golf's first network-free major.

Other problems persist. Since Jason Bohn won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on April 25, Americans have won just four of 14 events on the PGA Tour. (Zach Johnson, Colonial; Bubba Watson, Travelers; Steve Stricker, John Deere; Matt Bettencourt, Reno-Tahoe.)

America's most exciting young player, Anthony Kim, 25, has missed much of this year with a thumb injury and said Tuesday he will return to the Tour at next week's WGC-Bridgestone.

America's second most exciting player, Rickie Fowler, 21, leads the Kodak Challenge but is 15th in Ryder Cup points. He needs at least a top 10 or two to justify a pick from U.S. Ryder Cup majordomo Corey Pavin, who at this stage of the game must be searching the bylaws to see if he can select Alexis Thompson. (Thompson is, technically, a 15-year-old girl. More on her later.)

With a playoff loss in Hartford and another runner-up at the British Senior Open last weekend, Pavin himself is playing better than most of the young pros one would expect to be on his team.

That doesn't mean he'll be a playing captain, but it does shed more light on the Champions Tour as the over-50 circuit continues to benefit from the PGA Tour's sudden lack of sizzle.

• Seattle-native Fred Couples has featured prominently in both the oldies' revival and the marketing and promotion for this week's U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee C.C. in Sammamish, Wash.

Honorary chairman Couples, who last week was passed by Bernhard Langer atop the 2010 Schwab Cup points list, finished T13 at the '98 PGA Championship at Sahalee.

Mark O'Meara, who turned 50 more than three years ago but is still without a victory as a senior, tied for fourth at Sahalee in '98.

It is perhaps not a huge stretch to expect another good week from "Fairway" Fred Funk, who would become the first player to successfully defend his U.S. Senior Open title since Allen Doyle in 2006. Sahalee's fairways were so narrow and tree-lined for the '98 PGA, Lee Janzen quipped, "I think the best way to prepare for this course would have been to go to a big city, like New York, and maybe play down Fifth Avenue."

• The LPGA Tour moves from France to Britain for the Ricoh Women's British Open at Royal Birkdale Golf Club.

Jeong Jang went wire-to-wire to win the Open the last time it was held at Birkdale, in 2005, but a better pick this week might be Sophie Gustafson, who won the 2000 Birkdale Open and finished second to Jang in '05.

Michelle Wie tied for third place, six back, in '05.

In the kind of move that has plagued the women's game in recent years, the Ladies Golf Union refused to give budding U.S. star Thompson — T2 at the Evian Masters — an exemption into Monday's final qualifying round.

Thompson could not attend pre-qualifying because it was the day after the U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont, where she finished T10 and so impressed Suzann Pettersen that the Norwegian gushed, "She's the best 15-year-old I ever saw."

• Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose and Padraig Harrington lead a strong field at the European tour's 3 Irish Open at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.

European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie will be hoping for some clarity atop the points standings, where he has an embarrassment of riches — quite the opposite of Pavin's dilemma.

• With a dozen tournaments remaining before the Nationwide Tour Championship, aspiring PGA Tour pros head to Nebraska for the Cox Classic Presented by Lexus of Omaha.

Among the lore at Champions Run was Chip Beck's 2003 hole-in-one — on a par-4, the 315-yard ninth hole.

Jamie Lovemark, 22, took over the top spot on the money list with a runner-up at last week's Children's Hospital Invitational.

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