SI GOLF+ PGA Tour Confidential: The state of the Tour; Tiger; favorite Tour stops and more

The Tour boomed because of Woods, but now some fans think that Tiger is the Tour.
Robert Beck/SI

SI GOLF+ convened a fivesome of veteran PGA Tour players — Ben Crane, Steve Flesch, J.J. Henry, Davis Love III and Ted Purdy — plus SI senior writer Gary Van Sickle to answer those and other questions

State of The Tour

Van Sickle: The PGA Tour has turned up some new sponsors in a tough economy. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the Tour’s future?

Flesch: It’s more than just the PGA Tour. In the grand scheme of things commissioner Tim Finchem has done well to maintain 95 sponsors—45 on the PGA Tour and 25 or so each on the Champions and Nationwide tours. That’s pretty darn good.

Crane: Considering the economy, I couldn’t be happier.

Love: If you looked at the PGA Tour without looking at the economy, you’d say we’re struggling a bit. Based on the economy, you’d say we’re kicking butt. When you consider all the car companies and financial institutions that had bankruptcies and were tournament sponsors, to fill in all those blanks and not go backward is a miracle.

Henry: It says a lot about our product and the character of our players that we’re fully sponsored in a down period and have kept purses up. I’m very optimistic. Especially seeing the stock market back around 12,000.

Purdy: Before the FedEx Cup it took about $600,000 [in earnings] to keep your Tour card. The first year of the FedEx Cup it took $875,000. Even though I finished 127th and missed my card by a few thousand dollars, I thought Finchem was brilliant. Then we had this down economy, and the 125th spot went back to $600,000. So I’m still optimistic, but we are losing playing opportunities for the Tour’s lower third of the players—and that’s my category now.

Flesch: Am I concerned about playing opportunities? Absolutely. A case in point was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. We cut 24 spots from the field supposedly to improve the pace of play. Well, the pace of play still stunk. Was cutting a round from six hours to 5:45 worth getting rid of 24 pros? I don’t think so.

Love: We’re not trying to cut playing opportunities, but there are no businesses in this country where the people at the bottom aren’t struggling. The guys at the bottom of the money list can say it’s not fair. Golf’s not fair, business isn’t fair, and life isn’t fair. I’m sure things will get better over the next few years. We have a great product.

Flesch: Life on the Tour is better than a lot of people think. The West Coast swing was saved this year pretty much because Phil Mickelson played almost every week. He adds the flair and excitement we need. With all due respect to Mark Wilson and D.A. Points and some of the other winners, they aren’t moving the needle yet. We’re lucky our TV numbers are up. Tiger and Phil playing in San Diego was a ratings home run, and there has been plenty of good drama in our events. I think the next TV packages will work out well.

Purdy: I’m grateful that Finchem is doing the next TV negotiation because he’s been there. I don’t think we want a new guy in there at this juncture.

Van Sickle: Finchem is pretty much batting 1,000.

Purdy: Absolutely. He’s the Albert Pujols of TV contracts.

The Tiger Conundrum

Van Sickle: Tiger Woods put golf on the front page and helped quadruple the size of purses, but when he’s not playing interest wanes. Has Tiger proved to be a double-edged sword?

Crane: We’ve been dealing with not having Tiger at every tournament for 12 years. He’s the best the game has ever seen, the most recognizable sportsman in the world. Sure, everybody wants him to play. We have more to offer with him. I’d certainly rather watch a tournament with Tiger than one without him.

Henry: Me, too. The better Tiger does, the better it is for guys like me.

Purdy: The energy is simply different at Tiger events. Obviously, everything Finchem negotiated relied heavily on Tiger’s exposure on weekends.

Henry: The new demographic that Tiger brought in was big. Golf was cool when I was in high school, but not this cool. Now some of the best athletes go into golf, maybe because the world’s most recognizable figure plays our sport.

Van Sickle: Did the Tour get too dependent on Tiger?

Love: You couldn’t avoid it, just like there was no way to avoid Michael Jordan becoming the focus of the NBA. He was just that good. You have to promote him. Our problem is that the rest of the world got this perception that golf is Tiger Woods, but it’s not. He has to have a field to beat and a platform to play. The PGA Tour is a great platform. It was a few sponsors who got hung up on, “Well, he’s not here.”

Purdy: Tiger’s positives far outweigh the negatives. I wouldn’t put it on him as the reason it’s harder to find corporate sponsors. There are only so many FORTUNE 500 companies willing and able to sponsor golf.

Love: Tiger bumps the TV ratings, sure, but we have Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els and Camilo Villegas and other great players to watch. You know, there will be a time when Davis Love and Fred Couples and Tiger Woods won’t be playing, and there will be new stars. It has always happened that way.

Flesch: I agree. Our Tour will create new stars. It already has. I walk through the locker room, and I don’t know half of these young kids.

Van Sickle: Jhonattan Vegas proved you can create a new star in two weeks. Still, does the Tour need Tiger to perform well this year?

Henry: I think it’s important that Tiger comes back and wins. Life is about second chances. People still want to see him play golf. So do I.

Flesch: There are probably some players who enjoy watching Tiger flounder—not that they’d admit it. I think they’re amazed by his fall from grace and by what he has done to his swing in the last four years compared with where it was in 2000.

Love: Look, if you like golf, you can’t watch only one guy, whether it’s Greg Norman or Fred or David Duval or Tiger. Because eventually, that guy is going to go away. Michael Jordan did. Someday, so will Tiger Woods.

My Favorite Tournament

Van Sickle: What’s your favorite regular Tour stop, the one you never miss if you can help it?

Henry: Actually, I have two. I grew up in Connecticut, so Hartford is big for me. Hartford was the Phoenix Open before the Phoenix Open. I played that event in college, and there were 120,000 fans. It was amazing. When I went to Texas Christian, I lived in an apartment that looked right down Colonial Country Club’s 18th fairway, so Colonial is a special place for me. Plus, now I live in Fort Worth [Texas].

Purdy: Phoenix has grown way beyond what Hartford once was. There’s not a golf event in the world like Phoenix, with the crowds and the atmosphere and the excitement.

Van Sickle: Phoenix has the world’s loudest hole—the par-3 16th on Saturday.

Purdy: When the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl [in 2009], I hit a shot there to half an inch. I grabbed a Cardinals flag and waved it all the way to the green. The fans went crazy. I was playing late on Saturday, so it was amazingly loud. I only wish the shot had gone in.

Love: I would never miss Hilton Head, and I’m not saying that because I’ve won there. Hilton Head is a lot like home to me, and it’s the week after the Masters, a relaxed atmosphere, and my family always enjoys it. This will be my 26th time.

Van Sickle: Winning a tournament five times doesn’t hurt your attitude either.

Love: I suppose not. But even if I hadn’t won, Harbour Town would be one of my favorite spots. It’s a great week and a great course.

Flesch: I have to go with Hilton Head too. Maybe it’s the Low Country atmosphere, maybe it’s because it’s usually the week after the Masters, but there is a lack of urgency that lets you unwind. Unless you’re in the final group on Sunday, Hilton Head is very relaxing.

Crane: I answer this question the same way every time—my favorite event is the one I’m playing that week.

Van Sickle: You may have a future in politics, sir.

Crane: Thanks, I’ll stick to YouTube.

One Mulligan

Van Sickle: You’re PGA Tour commissioner for a day. What do you change?

Crane: Not a thing. Just keep doing what we’re doing.

Henry: The Super Bowl moves around every year. Why can’t the FedEx Cup playoffs move around? Why couldn’t, say, Hartford and the BMW Championship switch spots on the calendar for a year?

Van Sickle: That’s pretty radical.

Henry: Well, a lot of sponsors and communities have supported the Tour for years. Let everyone have a chance to host a playoff event, not just the same cities every year.

Love: I’d make the Nationwide tour bigger, make it the way to get to the regular Tour instead of qualifying school. I’d take some of the PGA Tour’s weaker events and make them major Nationwide events. That would strengthen the other tour and shorten our schedule.

Flesch: Yeah, I’ve heard talk that Q school might become the way you get on the Nationwide, and that a separate qualifier would be held for players who lost their cards and for Nationwide players to move up to the PGA Tour. So the only road to the PGA Tour would go through the Nationwide.

Purdy: I’d increase the fields at all the big-dollar events. The bigger, the better. Our best event is the Players, with 144 players and a $9.5 million purse. They got it right with that one. Everybody says the Players has the strongest field of the year. Why limit the fields at the World Golf Championships to 60 or 70 players? Someone like Sergio García, who can get hot and win at any time, may miss them because he dropped out of the top 50 in the World Ranking.

Flesch: I totally agree. The WGC fields should be bigger—at least 120 players. And I’d add a cut so they’re not freebies anymore. It’s too easy for guys to shoot six or eight over par for 72 holes and still pick up their $50,000. These events skew the money lists and the rankings for the top players. They make it way too easy to maintain a top 50 ranking without playing all that well.

Van Sickle: If you add a cut, some top international players might quit coming.

Flesch: Yes, but if you want to stay up in the ranking, you’d have to play. There are too many ranking points at stake. Plus, the real problem is that the WGC events have helped make it too easy for players to reach the minimum number of events. We don’t require our stars to play enough to carry the rest of the PGA Tour. That’s why the Tour is downsizing, that’s why the Fall Series will go away and why the Tour will downsize even more. It’s going to get harder for the not-so-big stars to survive.

Van Sickle: The WGC events have diminished the importance of regular Tour stops.

Flesch: It really hurts when our stars play abroad. The field at Dubai blew away Pebble Beach. In this economy you have to bring your best to the dance, and we don’t do that often enough. That’s why Finchem is doing even better than you think. A lot of tournaments are putting up purses of $5 million or $6 million even though they know Tiger isn’t coming and maybe nobody else in the top 10 is either. That’s some impressive smoke and mirrors.

Rules Warriors

Van Sickle: This has been a year of weird rules violations. How do you feel about TV viewers reporting potential mistakes?

Henry: I’m not a proponent of fans calling in. Unlike other sports, we don’t have an official watching every shot by every player. And not every shot is seen on TV, so some players are under more scrutiny than others. That isn’t equal. We need to come up with a solution where a guy isn’t disqualified for something he did wrong two days earlier.

Crane: Right. When a guy commits a penalty and doesn’t know it, it should be a two-shot penalty, not a disqualification for signing a wrong score. All it’s going to take is to DQ a leader everybody wants to see win.

Purdy: I wouldn’t mind if the Tour had an 800 number. I wish they’d had that for the Heritage Classic, where Stewart Cink beat me after he moved sand from behind his ball. You can’t do that except on a green. So many people called in, the officials in the rules trailer unplugged the phone. They ignored it.

Van Sickle: If justice is served, it shouldn’t matter who pointed out the violation. Wouldn’t it be worse if a winner got away with a violation that everyone witnessed?

Purdy: In the NFL and college basketball they review plays because they happen quickly and they want to get the ruling right. If the result of calling in is the correct call, I don’t see how it’s a bad thing. The more fan involvement, the better it is for us.

Flesch: Do we really need to know what viewers at home think? We don’t need some truck driver calling in because he thought somebody grounded a club. Let’s just put a rules official in the production truck when the telecast is on. If any violations happen on TV, he’ll see them. It’s pretty simple.

A Rite of Spring

Van Sickle: The public Loves the glamour and the aura of the Masters. This will be my 30th Masters, and I still look forward to it. How about you?

Crane: The Masters is like Wimbledon. It’s different from all the rest. It’s special.

Flesch: It’s what every player thinks about when he wins a tournament—I’m going to the Masters! The course is unique, it’s spectacular and it has history. You’re going to the same place where Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Hogan and so many others did special things. You can go to the spot where Nicklaus made a putt in ’86. It’s never going to lose its luster.

Purdy: There’s something to be said for tradition. There is not a better tournament to win. The allure is there. They created it. It’s real.

Henry: If I could pick one tournament to win it would be the U.S. Open, but the Masters is an unbelievable experience. I remember watching on TV in the caddie room at my home course, the Patterson Club in Fairfield, Connecticut, when I was about 11, and Nicklaus made those putts—and the roars!

Love: My favorite thing is being around the clubhouse and hanging with the game’s legends. It’s an amazing atmosphere. It’s one tournament you want to win so you can go back there every year, whether you’re playing or not. It’s an honor to play there.

Henry: I’ll always remember driving down Magnolia Lane the first time.

Love: It’s still exciting to pull into Magnolia Lane, whether it’s in February or April. I’d prefer it to be April, for obvious reasons.