PGA Tour made a mistake riding the wave created by Tiger Woods

PGA Tour made a mistake riding the wave created by Tiger Woods

Padraig Harrington made four bogeys and a birdie for a 73.
Fred Vuich/SI

The Fall Series has seemed like a double entendre ever since the PGA Tour decided to end its official season with the FedEx Cup playoffs. The name fit not only because the seven post-Cup events were played in the fall, but also because they were destined to fall off the schedule.

Once there were seven. On the 2009 PGA Tour schedule, just announced, five tournaments remain. Tournament officials suggest that another event may be cobbled together for a date in early November, but I’m not holding my breath.

The country’s economic hard times are part of why the PGA Tour is suddenly feeling a squeeze. The Ginn sur Mer event, held in the fall, disappeared because the sponsor, Ginn Resorts, is caught in the housing and real estate meltdown. No surprise there. The Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, which has long been on standby for a regular-season date, finally got an opening when the Atlanta tour stop couldn’t find a sponsor.

And the other shoe could drop, perhaps in 2010, with the regular-season tournaments currently sponsored by struggling automakers — two Buick events, the Honda Classic and the Mercedes-Benz Championship, as well as the BMW Championship, a playoff tournament.

You can blame it all on hard times if you want, but the problems began before the current economic crisis. The tour showed overconfidence — dare I say arrogance? — in the way that it rode the wave created by Tiger Woods. Some of the decisions made during this period took the tour in the wrong direction.

I remember a press briefing earlier this decade in which Commissioner Tim Finchem boasted about the growing number of golf fans and the game’s growing reach. As Woods became arguably the planet’s No. 1 celebrity, the game drew more exposure. That succeeded in creating more casual fans — more Tiger fans, not golf fans — but it didn’t seem to translate into more golfers, as figures on the number of players have remained flat. The Tiger-inspired audience that the Tour banked on is vast, but it’s more fickle than one made up of golfers who will watch every week, no matter who’s playing.

This irrational exuberance has led to some questionable decisions.

Too much television exposure: Finchem finally realized a long-term goal when every PGA Tour event got television coverage. The new age of televising golf on Thursdays and Fridays has backfired. At best, it’s oversaturation. At worst, it’s a bad product. My sympathies to the TV producers who have to find some kind of story to tell while covering the tail-end of the first or second rounds with nothing more to show than journeymen and Q-school grads. Often, the leader played in the morning, and no one near the lead is even on the course when the coverage begins. Factor in a B-team broadcast squad, and you’ve got a product far inferior to the weekend coverage.

Gigantic purses: Players are thrilled that prize money has climbed out of sight during the Tiger era, but jacking up the price of sponsoring a tournament to current levels ($8-10 million) in the wake of 9/11 was too aggressive. Tour purses in 1995 were $62 million; by 1999, the total was $134 million; by 2007, the figure had reached $270 million. The tour may have priced itself out of the market. During the glory years of Wall Street, when executives were voting themselves $30 million bonuses, maybe those figure were workable. Now? I’m not sure. The tour may need to reduce the cost of sponsoring tournaments to make it more affordable.

The bloated purses have also worked as a disincentive for top pros to play more. In the 1980s and early 1990s, many top players averaged more than 25 tournaments a year. Throw out aberrations like Vijay Singh, who plays constantly, and not many star players approach 25 appearances.

That’s why Finchem, in announcing the fall schedule, asked the top players to make an effort to play more events year-round. But players who have more money than they can ever spend don’t want to do that, and who can blame them? Even players who don’t win much have become fabulously wealthy. Chris DiMarco, a three-time winner, has amassed about $20 million in earnings. Jerry Kelly, a two-time champ, has won about $17 million. And that’s not even counting their endorsement money. It’s also another reason why the FedEx Cup has fizzled. Money, even $10 million, is less of a motivation when more than 75 players have already won at least that much in their careers.

Extravaganzas: All the tour seems to care about now are the big events, but the tour was built on a base of regular tour stops. The four majors have continued to grow in stature, but the tour doesn’t control any of them. So it built the Players Championship into a semi-major, repositioning it in May, and started the World Golf Championships, which also haven’t fulfilled their potential. Limited-field events filled with the top players, the WGC events were designed to maximize television coverage. Even though Tiger has dominated these events, they haven’t gained traction with the viewing public. But that wasn’t enough. To convince the networks to buy in on the last contract negotiations, the tour invented the FedEx Cup race.

Are you detecting a trend yet? The WGC events made the traditional tour stops, like the Memorial, seem less glamorous. The FedEx Cup events in turn minimized the WGC events.

By trying to make bigger, better and splashier television shows with Tiger, the tour has effectively undermined its core products — tournaments such as the John Deere Classic, the Buick, the Canadian Open and the Byron Nelson.

The PGA Tour has naturally divided into two kinds of tournaments, the ones Tiger plays and the ones he doesn’t. The focus on big events has exacerbated the problem.

The Fall Series, meanwhile, has been left to fend for itself against almighty football. By heavily marketing the FedEx Cup and the Tour Championship, the tour has doomed the Fall Series to irrelevance. In addition, the Fall Series events don’t count for FedEx Cup points, and winners don’t get Masters invites. Unless the tour wants these events to go away, that should change.

The European Tour doesn’t limit its season to a calendar year. Its 2009 season has already started. The PGA Tour should follow suit. The Fall Series should be the start of the next season. The money should count, FedEx Cup points should be awarded and winners should get the same perks as winners of other tournaments.

The PGA Tour appears to be shrinking. That matters to the rank-and-file players, if not to those who already have their millions. Even with changes, the Fall Series may ultimately fall. The big question is, what else on the PGA Tour would go with it?