Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 8, 2012

PGA Tour Kickoff A Victim Of Golf’s Success

Did you hear the one about the golf tournament where no one came to play? Okay it’s not quite that bad this weekend in Hawaii, but with just 27 players walking around the Plantation Course at Kapalua for the annual Tournament of Champions, the 2012 PGA Tour season is off to a rather feeble start. Since the season-opening event is limited to golfers who won a PGA tournament during the previous year the field is always limited; but this is the smallest number of competitors to tee it up since the tournament moved off the mainland in 1999. Thirty-nine players qualified for the event but a record number chose to pass this year. The fact that a week in the tropical paradise that is the northwest coast of Maui and the chance to play for the $1.12 million winner’s share of the $5.6 million purse wasn’t enough to entice some of the game’s biggest names to board a plane this early in January is just more proof that what is now effectively a global golf season has gotten too long.

The highest ranked player in the field is Steve Stricker, who at #6 is the top American in the world rankings. Stricker makes his home in Wisconsin, so his willingness to fly to Hawaii in January is understandable. But he and #10 Webb Simpson are the only two players in the top-10 playing this week. While the twelve first-time entrants and nine golfers under the age of 30 are testaments to the new order that is emerging on the PGA Tour, the likes of Michael Bradley, defending champion Jonathan Byrd, and even the popular Stricker acknowledged that their presence on the leader board isn’t going to do much for the tournament’s TV ratings.

The players that would spark viewing interest are all far from Kapalua’s hills. The two most recognizable figures in men’s golf haven’t made an appearance in years. As a non-winner in 2011 Tiger Woods wasn’t eligible this year; but having not played Kapalua since 2005 he likely wouldn’t have come even if he was. Phil Mickelson won the Houston Open last spring; yet Mickelson hasn’t made the trip to Hawaii since 2001, despite being eligible every year since except 2003. Meanwhile the world rankings are dominated at the moment by international players. Yet #1 Luke Donald, #3 Rory McIlroy, #4 Martin Kaymer, #5 Adam Scott and #9 Charl Schwartzel, all of whom qualified for the field opted against making lengthy flights to the middle of the Pacific. Most of them simply chose to extend what is an increasingly short off-season; while Schwartzel will defend his title at the European Tour’s Joburg Open in South Africa next week and understandably didn’t want to travel halfway around the world and back just prior to doing so.

It is that lack of an off-season that is the real problem. One upon a time, the PGA Tour wrapped up its season with the Tour Championship. After that a handful of marquee players would participate in a few “silly season” events like the Skins Game. Even those exhibitions and made-for-television events usually ended by Thanksgiving. But in 2011 the Tour Championship in late September was followed by four official events of the Tour’s “Fall Series,” and a World Golf Championship event in Shanghai. Then for the top American and international stars it was off to Australia for the Presidents Cup in mid-November.

That biennial event of course excludes European players, but that’s probably just as well since the European Tour’s regular schedule was still in full swing. That tour’s 2011 calendar actually started with two events in December 2010 and didn’t conclude until Alvaro Quiros claimed victory at the Dubai World Championship one year and two days after the season’s first tee shot was struck. Once all of the official events have finally concluded, the few weeks that are empty on either the PGA or European Tour’s schedules are filled with exhibitions like the Chevron World Challenge and events in Asia and Australia whose organizers gladly pay hefty appearance fees to attract the game’s top competitors. Professional golf may not be the most physical of sports, but sooner or later jet lag is bound to set in; and it is a game that requires enormous focus and concentration, making mental fatigue a very real issue.

The absence of the game’s biggest names doesn’t mean that there won’t be some fine golf played over the tournament’s four days. But it does feel like an event designed to be special by being limited to the past year’s champions deserves better. This year’s event was shifted to a Monday finish in prime time so as not to compete with the NFL playoffs; but really, who but the most ardent golf fan is going to be watching?

It would be a good idea to expand the field just a bit by extending invitations to previous winners of the tournament. It would be an even better one to move the Tournament of Champions to a spot a month or so later on the calendar, when the game’s premier players are ready to end their winter breaks and rejoin the fray. While they’re at it, if the PGA Tour and the tournament’s organizers want to continue to hold the event at a spot that, while surpassingly beautiful is just a wee bit remote, then they should have a couple of charter jets ready after the last putt is struck; one each headed for the next stop on the PGA and European Tour.

Much of the talk as the tournament began was about the pairing of two notably opinionated commentators, Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo, in the Golf Channel broadcast booth. With changes like those outlined above, the Tournament of Champions would be more likely to get the field it deserves. That would put the focus of attention back out on the golf course, where it belongs.

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