Who killed The International?

March 9, 2007

You may be shocked to learn that The International, a first-class stop with one of the loveliest courses on Tour in Castle Pines, is dead. Tournament founder Jack Vickers and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem joined forces Thursday in Denver to make the announcement.

It was already known that The International’s future was on shaky ground and that this year might be its last stop. The surprise at the news conference was that there will be no tournament this year, too. Some CSI investigator can provide the exact time of death later.

There is one obvious question and it sounds like a Monk-Columbo-Poirot style mystery: Who killed The International?

Let me round up the suspects for you.

Tiger Woods. Golf’s greatest player has wielded a double-edge sword through no fault of his own, only his incredible skill. Tiger has created enormous interest worldwide and raised the game to new levels … when he plays. The problem is, any event (or tour) he doesn’t play has paled in comparison and been minimized.

The Champions Tour, for instance, had a public presence in the 1990s until Woods came along and, coincidentally, the tour moved off ESPN. The LPGA, thanks to Annika Sorenstam and young stars such as Michelle Wie, Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer, is just now starting to get out from under the Tiger eclipse it suffered.

There are two kinds of PGA Tour events — those that have Tiger in the field and those that don’t. The ones falling by the wayside or being shifted into the fall schedule (and into likely irrelevance) are the ones Tiger doesn’t play, which isn’t a coincidence. See the Booz Allen Classic, 84 Lumber Classic and former Greater Hartford Open, for starters.

Woods played at Castle Pines in 1998 and had an incredible week. He blasted a 400-yard drive — uh, in ’98 that was still unthinkable, unlike now. He had a hole-in-one, eagled one par 4 and two par 5s, perhaps the first time anyone eagled a par 3, par 4 and par 5 in the same tournament. He finished fourth, returned the next year and finished 37th but has never been back.

It’s a sad reality but without Tiger in the field, it’s more difficult to convince the public and media that an event is significant, no matter how well an event is run. What’s more important is that the sponsors, the ones forced to cough up the $8 million or so it costs to hold a tournament, aren’t as willing to pay big money for an event that doesn’t have Tiger and isn’t going to get Tiger and, therefore, is seen as a lesser event. In ad-speak, it’s not a good buy.

The International was clearly obsessive about getting Tiger — and who could blame them? Vickers admitted Tiger was a factor. “All of a sudden, we’re into a new era,” Vickers said. “Everything is influenced by one player — Tiger Woods. When he plays, TV ratings are great. When he’s not playing, they’re not so hot. No question, he has a powerful effect … He’s a phenomenon, god bless him.”

The World Golf Championships. These are Finchem’s babies, a rip-off, of course, of Greg Norman‘s ill-fated attempt to create a world tour. The International was the equivalent of a WGC event from its origin. When it began in 1986, there were few opportunities for the world’s best players to tee it up together. Few foreign players were exempted into the Masters, U.S. Open or PGA Championship and few Americans were exempted into the British Open. The best just didn’t play each other often enough.

Vickers founded The International with the idea of solving that problem and, in the process, create a unique tournament that would have instant stature. He also made it TV-friendly by using a modified stableford format (allowing players to go for broke) and a daily cut (featuring tense end-of-the-day playoffs to advance). The International’s format gradually evolved into a four-round cumulative point total in the modified Stableford system and got away from the daily playoffs, which often ran into conflict with Denver’s daily late-summer thunderstorms.

Anyway, the WGC events began in the late 1990s — the former World Series of Golf at Firestone in Akron was designated as one, plus a new match play championship and a new stroke-play event (then called the American Express Championship) were added. By this time, the majors and the Players Championship broadened their qualifications to attract better and more representative international fields. In short, they borrowed The International’s schtick.

With more European players becoming full-time members of the PGA Tour, it added up to The International losing its uniqueness, undercut by the WGC events. The Amex’s date in September further clogged the PGA schedule. Before, players would come early to the PGA Championship or stay late and play the International and/or at Firestone. With the WGC events and their big purses, The International became superfluous in a way.

The FedEx Cup. The creation of the so-called playoff system at the end of the season pretty much made any Tour date after the U.S. Open in mid-June unattractive. The schedule’s back-end is top-heavy and overcrowded. The Bridgestone Invitational (former World Series) at Firestone has moved to the first week of August, the week before the PGA Championship. Most top players will play both weeks. The next week is the Greensboro stop, followed by the FedEx Cup playoffs. In four straight weeks, it’ll be The Barclays, Deutsche Bank Championship, BMW Championship and Tour Championship with the $10 million first prize at stake.

Assuming the superstars play all of those, that’s six appearances in seven weeks, something only Vijay Singh does and something Tiger and Phil Mickelson and the rest almost never do. Back up two weeks earlier to the British Open in mid-July, and a top player is looking at playing seven of the last nine events.

If the star players tee it up that often, they’ll be looking for some downtime. That means that week at Greensboro. That means the week between the British Open and Firestone, which is the Canadian Open. It may even mean the weeks between the U.S. Open and the British Open, which included stops at Hartford, Flint, The International and the John Deere Classic.

If the PGA Tour does fill The International’s Fourth of July weekend date this year with another event, it’s going to have a tough time attracting a star-studded field due to the looming FedEx finale. Buyers beware — if it was a good date, Vickers and The International wouldn’t be bailing out.

Tim Finchem. Well, the WGC events and the FedEx Cup were his ideas. The latter was a necessity to entice the television networks to stay in the game. That didn’t work entirely, as ABC and ESPN dropped out because, basically, the asking price was too high for a package that included too many events Tiger doesn’t play. The decision to leave ESPN, the default channel for every sports viewer in America and an icon that has become almost genetic, may soon come home to roost. Especially if The Golf Channel’s lack of viewership isn’t eventually overcome.

There used to be several tiers of Tour events. Some were bigger than others, just a notch below the majors. The Memorial Tournament was a big deal. The old Western Open was a big event. So was Colonial. And Pebble Beach. And The International. The Players Championship slowly assumed the mantle of the would-be fifth major. Then the WGC events were born and every Tour event was knocked down a couple of pegs in importance.

Now here’s the FedEx Cup, and while it helps the four tournaments hosting the playoffs, it knocks every other PGA Tour stop down a few more pegs. Colonial is now one of the smallest stops. The Memorial, where players get treatment almost on an equal to Castle Pines, is no longer a must-play event. With the FedEx Cup, you may even see top players beginning to skip one or two of the WGC events. Will Tiger and Phil really play at Firestone the week before the PGA? By trying to create ever-bigger, ever-more important events, Finchem is minimalizing the very Tour events he supposedly is trying to help.

Tour players. The International’s farewell may not be an isolated case, a so-called perfect storm of factors. This may be the start of the Tour’s bubble burst. The International couldn’t attract Tiger or Phil and now it’s gone. Tiger and Phil have made a habit of skipping the season-opening Mercedes Championship, which is for winners-only and offers a guaranteed check. Tiger and Phil skipped last year’s Tour Championship, another no-cut event with a guaranteed payday in excess of $100,000.

PGA Tour players have long argued that they’re independent contractors and have the right to play wherever and whenever they’d like. Well, fellas, if you don’t support some tournaments, the sponsors may find somewhere else to spend their money. If I was Mercedes or Coca-Cola and the sport’s top two players ditched my premiere event, I’d pull the plug on my sponsorship millions in a New York minute. Finchem isn’t able to guarantee any sponsor any player.

If Tour players keep sticking it to the golden goose by not supporting tournaments, not only will those golden eggs stop coming but the players may face losing their independence, either by being required to appear at each event once every five years (similar to an LPGA Tour mandate) or by having a much smaller tour.

OK, so the answer to the mystery? Who killed The International? It’s all of the above. They all played a part.

The funny thing is, Jack Vickers is wealthy, smart and a consummate backer of golf whose only goal was to hold a great tournament. He is an influential figure in the game, he’s a member at Augusta National and pretty much knows everybody who’s worth knowing. You can’t name a more valuable resource in the world of golf.

Maybe the real question should be, what kind of business model is the PGA Tour running when it sends Jack Vickers packing?