Every week of the 2009 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another week of the PGA Tour Confidential, or, if you like, As the World Turns. A Japanese player (Ai Miyazato) and a Swedish player (Sofie Gustafson) duking it out at the LPGA event in Evian, France. (Ai won.) An American player, Loren Roberts, and a player from Zimbabwe who now lives in Ireland, Mark McNulty, in a playoff for the British Senior title. (Roberts won.) One famous Canadian (Mike Weir) and a bunch of Americans played the Canadian Open, in a tournament that ended Monday afternoon in a playoff win by Nathan Green.
But first, Tiger Woods announced that he will play next week at the Buick Open in Flint, Mich., even though he doesn’t have a deal with Buick anymore. And Buick may not have a deal with the PGA Tour anymore. The longstanding Flint event is likely in its final year, and the San Diego event, held at Torrey Pines, may also be in jeopardy. Let’s start with the sponsorship news, because you don’t have events without sponsors. Can anybody shed some light on the Buick situation?
Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Looks as if GM is getting out of the golf business.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: I’ve been making calls on the Buick situation and I haven’t found out much so far. From what I understand, as part of the bankruptcy, GM had the option to renew, renegotiate or dump its Tour contracts. They dumped the Buick Open, but I hear they’re trying to renegotiate the Buick Invitational. Problem is, Buick is looking to pay less while the Tour and tournament organizers want more. And since the Invitational is a strong event (good course, good ratings and a good field that usually includes Tiger and Phil) Buick doesn’t have much leverage. Word is the Invitational guys have other sponsors waiting in the wings if it doesn’t work out with Buick.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: GM has taken billions in bailout money from Uncle Sam but last year spent $2.1 billion in advertising. It’s been forecasted that by the end of the 2010 the company will shut down 2,500 dealerships and close a dozen more plants and cut pension benefits. Golf can’t be a priority for them right now. But I think as the auto industry recovers in five years, golf will be in the bread line behind the NFL and MLB for the smaller, revamped sports marketing budgets of the top 10 or 20 Fortune 500 companies.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: At some point, I think reality will hit home. Don’t you think that the PGA Tour is going to lose some more tournaments (like the LPGA is) and that prize money is going to have to shrink? The next TV deal isn’t going to be as lucrative either. Even FedEx is in no position to offer another FedEx Cup at the current level. There’s a good chance we’re going to see a first for pro golf in the next few years — reduced purses.
Gorant: I think that’s a last resort. I imagine the Tour will save money in every less-visible way possible before shrinking purses. It sends a bad message. If I were a Tour VP, I’d be worried.
Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Yes, but Buick still needs to advertise. Have the folks at GM decided that golf sponsorships aren’t worth the price? Or is it an image-based decision? Or both?
Van Sickle: The price of golf sponsorship is simply too high. Companies whose stock prices are down 50% or more can’t afford to spend $6 to $8 million in goodwill anymore. Greg Norman was right earlier this year when he said the PGA Tour should’ve cut every purse across the board as a show of goodwill. The only purse that was cut $1 million was Memphis — after Stanford dropped out and the PGA Tour suddenly had to put up some of its own money.
Gorant: It’s too high relative to what you get. If you’re the Buick Invitational and you know you’ve got Woods every year, the price is right. For the rest of the Tour, it’s a shakier proposition. Although Ponte Vedra has to be in love with the Deutsche Bank CEO, who came out last week and talked about what a drop in the bucket a golf sponsorship is compared to what you get. I guess there are still some companies out there with deep pockets and no fear. Word is that the Tour has a replacement for Flint lined up. Don’t know who’s bankrolling or where it will be, but they’ve got someone to pony up.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It should be much easier to find a new sponsor at Torrey, which has its it own star power thanks to Tiger’s heroics through the years.
Van Sickle: One rumor I heard several months ago about Torrey Pines was that Tiger was interested in having a West Coast version of his AT&T National to serve the heavy military presence in the San Diego area. Anything with Tiger’s involvement is a sure winner. Nothing to substantiate that rumor, but Tiger’s continued appearance all but guarantees that Torrey Pines will survive in some form.
Bamberger: Mark Steinberg was looking at courses in Northern California for a Fall Series Tiger event that would honor the military personnel, but that was before GM gave up on golf. What Gary says makes total sense.
Bamberger: And what do you all think of Tiger’s decision to play Flint this week? Do you think he’s lost, just because he missed the cut at Turnberry? He’s won three times since coming back — how lost can he be? What will he be looking to do at Torrey? Any word on whether Double H will be there with him?
Van Sickle: Tiger has some allegiance to Buick. Plus maybe he realizes that he does, indeed, need to play a little more to get sharp for the majors. Also, he knows he’s not ever going to have to come back to Flint again.
Shipnuck: I think he’s realizing he needs more reps. His schedule has gotten so lean in recent years and, post-surgery, he’s still groping for consistency. That can only come through tournament rounds, not hitting balls at home.
Herre: Tiger simply needs to play more often. Playing his way into the PGA could be the ticket.
Gorant: I think he’s trying to change his pre-major approach, since the last three haven’t turned out the way he wanted.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Tiger wants more reps, but also more good vibes. His next three stops (Flint, Bridgestone, Hazeltine) have been pretty good to him through the years.
Herre: The Rich Beem win at Hazeltine in the 2002 PGA was one of the few times I’ve seen Tiger blink. When Beem sank that bomb late in the final round, Tiger seemed to go into shock.
Gorant: I always felt like Beem just hit too many good shots down the stretch. Nothing Tiger could do really.
Shipnuck: But how many guys have come that strong on the back nine against Tiger at a major? Bob May for sure, maybe DiMarco, but that’s about it. I agree that Beem’s barrage rattled Tiger a little bit, because he so rarely sees that.
Van Sickle: In years past some have questioned Tiger’s competition. I disagreed then, what with Ernie Els in his prime and Phil and Vijay and some others. Now Ernie and Vijay and Goosen are showing their age, Sergio hasn’t been able to conquer the putter, Harrington has had a letdown after his career year, and the youngsters like McIlroy and Kim aren’t at that level yet. Has there been a sudden drop in the level of competition, or am I just imagining that?
Evans: Vans, the quality of the game has never been better. There are more good players than ever before. When Nicklaus, Watson, Weiskopf, Trevino, Casper and all those guys were winning tournaments through the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were about 10 guys who could play at Jack’s level on any given week.
Van Sickle: I’m talking about the level of competition at the top of the game. The depth of competition has never been better, as you say, probably 20 times stronger than in Jack’s day. There’s just not much of a race for No. 2 right now.
Friedman: More good players now, maybe. But are there as many gamers — like the kind who went toe-to-toe with Jack on Sundays? Remember, Jack won 18 majors and finished second 19 times. So there were guys who were ready to do battle with him, including the ones you mention. Who’s consistently ready to duel Tiger?
Van Sickle: You nailed it, Dick. Where is Tiger’s Gary Player or Billy Casper or Lee Trevino or Johnny Miller or Lanny Wadkins or Hubert Green? Where are the future Hall of Famers other than the aging stars I alluded to earlier? We’re facing a temporary lull, it seems, much like we did in the early 1990s.
Bamberger: Is there any real evidence that the pressure of getting to 18 majors is getting to Tiger? I don’t see it. The f-bombs — I just think that’s who he is. The on-course mikes are more sensitive than ever.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Funny, Tiger is lost where it counts most, the majors, but he’s fine everywhere else. Tiger’s usually been his best when pressure has been the greatest. Seems like approaching Nicklaus’s record may be getting to him.
Hack: I don’t see it as pressure. I think we’re just seeing the huge difference between winning tour events and majors. Alan was right a few weeks back when he said he needed more evidence despite Tiger’s 14-for-14 fairways and win at Memorial. That guy didn’t show up at Bethpage and Turnberry, where margin for error was much smaller.
Lipsey: Right on. Tiger’s just not hitting it as well as in years past, or putting as well. For him, Memorial is so easy — he can hit it anywhere. Look at his driving stats: 33rd in distance and 88th in accuracy. Not major-quality stuff.
Shipnuck: 88th in accuracy is actually a big improvement for him. He’s been below 150th for years…
Van Sickle: That 14-for-14 day included a majority of 3-woods, not drivers. Tiger may still be adjusting his swing to a repaired knee that allows him to do things he hasn’t been able to do for a decade. His knee is better, but that means his swing is different. That’s the positive view, anyway. I’m sure some will say, once again, that his flattish swing from the Haney era is an issue. He still wins, however, just not in majors this year so far. It was the putter and his bad tee times at Bethpage that cost him, not his swing.
Hack: I wonder how long Tiger’s going to keep playing. How long can the Tour lean on him? Once he breaks Jack’s record, is he going to keep grinding into his 40s? The Tour better find ways, beyond Tiger, to ensure its financial future. Not saying it’s easy, but Tiger isn’t going to be doing this at 48 or even 44, is he? The NBA was miserable post MJ. Then came Kobe and LeBron to save it. Not sure who the Tour’s LeBron is to Tiger’s MJ.
Lipsey: Phil will likely be gone too. That leaves a huge void, a void I wouldn’t want to confront if I were a Tour marketing executive.
Friedman: Ha! Think of the bizarro possibility: Now that Watson showed you can play till 60, Tiger might play till he’s 80! But Damon’s right. Rory better come roaring along.
Lipsey: Tiger has said he’s never taken a golf vacation, that he doesn’t play golf for fun. Watson would night-putt with buddies for quarters in January. For Tiger, golf is business, and when he gets to 19, business is done. Adios.
Van Sickle: I disagree that Tiger quits after 19. He’ll continue competing, perhaps like Jack, on a much reduced schedule. But he’ll keep playing in majors until he’s not competitive. Who knows what age that will be. Fifty? Sixty? Tiger will find, as MJ did after his first of many retirements, that nothing in life is nearly as interesting or as exciting as competition. Jack won a major at 46. What else is Tiger going to do that satisfies him as much as competing in golf? I don’t see him being a Greg Norman board-room type, fulfilled by deals and building an empire. Tiger will have an empire, of course, but I don’t see him out in a vineyard checking out the grapes. He’s going to keep playing golf because competing is in his blood. MJ would still hoop it up if his knees allowed it.
Hack: But not even MJ played in the fishbowl that Tiger has. Plus, Michael had teammates. Some nights, Pippen or Kerr or Paxson made the game winner. For Tiger, all the requests, paparazzi snapping photos of his yacht, media room sessions must take their toll. At Turnberry, where Watson was in the media room all four days, he gave a shout out to Tiger, saying it’s amazing how he handles all the media each week. Tiger won’t be sticking around. He can ski, build courses, shoot hoops, play video games, sail around the world with his family. It’ll be adieu.
Evans: Tiger has a foundation that will one day give away a billion dollars a year. Earl didn’t plan for his boy to be just a golfer. I see Tiger doing full-time work at the Tiger Woods Learning Center by the time he turns 50.
Friedman: Like MJ, Tiger will find that once he steps off the golfing stage, the world will not be so eager to hear about his other endeavors. He might be fine with that — like Cary Grant was and Sandy Koufax is. But golf success is the mighty engine that drives everything else.
Van Sickle: Check in with Annika Sorenstam to see how her business is going now that she’s off the tour and has no exposure. The world has a short memory.
Bamberger: Changing continents for a moment, the British Senior Open was fascinating. A wonderful course, Sunningdale, in London, and Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson all making great swings. Watson, clearly, raised the stakes, but could the old-guy tour, especially the three majors — the PGA, the British and the U.S. Open — finally be finding its groove?
Shipnuck: Nope. The season is basically two good weeks, the U.S. Open and the British Open. Everything else is eminently forgettable.
Friedman: C’mon! There’s no more exciting event in sports than tape-delayed Champions tour golf!
Gorant: Norman is becoming like the Porky’s or Police Academy series; it’s the same movie over and over but people keep going to see it. Unfortunately, this is a tragedy instead of a comedy.
Shipnuck: More like a tragicomedy. I have to say I respect Norman for continuing to show up. We all know it’s going to end badly, and so does he, but he soldiers on. It’s fascinating and horrifying but somehow kind of noble.
Gorant: Like Rocky Balboa taking all those jabs from Apollo and refusing to go down.
Lipsey: Norman needs to talk to Cink and get on the double (or more) shrink bandwagon.
Van Sickle: The old guys have a groove but it’s a small one. Take a look. They held an exciting major this week that featured Greg Norman and Tom Watson, marquee names. And we’ve mostly been talking about Tiger, who didn’t play this week. It’s hard for that tour to get a headline.
Hack: I swear I’ve never seen a golfer other than Norman hit so many lips on putts over the last 25 years. Sunningdale was the same story, different year, different course. That tee ball into the trees on 17 didn’t help matters. FORE RIGHT!!
Van Sickle: There’s a reason Norman hasn’t won as a senior. He’s barely a part-time golfer who’s competing with pretty good players who do it full-time. He’s at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. If he committed to playing 20 senior events, which he won’t, he’d start winning.
Evans: Norman is a loveable masochist. Why would he keep doing this to himself? He’s got a great wife and millions. Greg, let it go!
Van Sickle: Even Greg Norman realizes there’s no substitute for the electric buzz of competition.
Friedman: When you’re middle-aged, you’ll understand why these guys keep trotting out there.
Bamberger: I imagine it’s the same for all of you: everywhere I went this week, I found myself talking about Watson and the Open. Here’s one I had never heard before. Bruce Edwards caddied, of course, for Watson, left him briefly for Norman, then went back to Watson. Somebody asked him, 'What’s the difference between those two?' Bruce said, 'Norman hits a perfect drive that ends up in a divot. He says, ‘Can you believe my damn luck?’ Watson hits a perfect drive that ends up in a divot. He says, ‘Watch what I can do from this one.’' Any of you have new insights into the Open and Watson? Would you like to see him play the PGA?
Gorant: I vote no on the PGA. Without a fast, hard links track he’d get hammered.
Hack: Hazeltine is what, 9 million yards this year? Tom, kick up your feet and enjoy the TV coverage.
Bamberger: I’m with you, Damon. Shooting 155 at the PGA would diminish what he did at Turnberry.
Evans: Watson says he doesn’t like playing ceremonial golf. Hazeltine is too long for him. I don’t want to see him embarrass himself for the sake of a headline. Plus, the PGA was the one major he didn’t win. Why should he believe that he can do it now?
Van Sickle: I’d love to see Watson play well anywhere, anytime. I don’t know if he can keep it up for four majors in five weeks. That’s a lot to ask of a 59-year-old. He shouldn’t feel obligated to play in the PGA, but if he did, I’d watch.
Herre: Four majors in a row? Not likely, but I bet the PGA of America made some inquiries. It was all Watson all the time for me, too, this week. And although the final result was bittersweet, Turnberry was clearly the high point of the season.
Van Sickle: I’d second that. Turnberry is this year’s biggest golf moment. Tiger’s first win after knee surgery was probably No. 2. After that, take your pick from Kenny Perry, Phil and Duval.
Bamberger: Consider these sage sentences from Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, regarding Watson and Turnberry. I found it inspiring, about our game and how we try to write about it: “That he did so well for so long speaks volumes about him. That he was made to look so helpless in the end speaks volumes about golf.”
Lipsey: Yeah, and Ai Miyazoto is a lovable winner. I bet her win in France is huge news in Japan. She has more Japanese reporters covering her every shot than there are fans on the LPGA courses.
Bamberger: We’re all golf buffs here: did anybody see more than six swings made at the Evian in Evian? A bottle of something to anybody who did. I’m sure Mr. Ty Votaw did; the PGA Tour executive, we all know, is the husband of the Evian runner-up, Sofie Gustafson of Sweden.
Shipnuck: For the record, I watched a lot of the back nine and the playoff. Please make it a ’98 Dom Perignon Rose’.
Lipsey: I did. It was actually fun to watch the gaggle of Asian LPGA players by the 18th green jumping, cheering and laughing while rooting for Ai in her final holes. They were having real fun. A big difference from a PGA Tour finale, when the guys bolt.
Hack: I covered Ai’s 12-shot romp in Q-school a few years back. She spoke today of the pressure she’s felt in the interim. Look out now. She could win a bunch. Doesn’t get much bigger ($$$, too) for the ladies than Evian.
Bamberger: Anybody who can win at Tour school by 12 must have serious game.
Hack: Ai does have game. Lots. Short off the tee, but in the fairway every time. And talk about pressure. Only Tiger (and Ryo) can relate to the cameras following Ai inside the ropes.
Bamberger: The Solheim Cup is in three weeks, in the U.S. this year. Based on the LPGA season to date, who has the edge?
Herre: Not a fair fight. The U.S. wins big.
Van Sickle: If Korea had a team, they’d blow the U.S. or Europe away. That’s why the Solheim Cup needs a revision. Ochoa isn’t playing. Annika isn’t playing. Neither are most of the top players in the rankings, because they’re Korean or Japanese. It’s like having the World Series between the Rangers and the Mets while the Yankees stay home and watch.
Lipsey: The Solheim Cup is a B-flight event because the A-flight team — the Koreans — are not eligible. That has to change. The Solheims aren’t dummies. They’ll come around.
Shipnuck: The U.S. has more depth, but the best player there will be Suzann Pettersen. Gustafson is peaking and Nordqvist could be a game-changer as a rookie. I think Europe is going to put up more of a fight than most of us expect.
Evans: I hope that Beth Daniel picks Michelle Wie as one of her captain’s picks. It could add some sheen to the whole exhibition.