Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2013

A Warning To The Men’s Tours: Nothing Grows Forever

Nine time zones away from the U.S. east coast, the PGA European Tour is finally wrapping up its long 2012-13 season. A schedule that began in South Africa last December 6th will end this Sunday at the Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, less than three weeks short of one year later. The DP World Tour Championship, being played on the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course, is the European equivalent of the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship. It’s open to the top 60 money winners, with a rich $8 million purse. In addition to a fat check, the winner of the tournament will earn a five year Tour exemption while the winner of the Order of Merit, the ever so politely named money list, will have free entry into European Tour events for the next decade.

When the first round teed off on Thursday the top nine golfers on the Order of Merit had a chance to claim that ten year exemption, with the top three assured of winning the money title if they win the tournament. By day’s end seven of the nine were near the top of the leaderboard, with only Spain’s Gonzalo Fdez-Castano and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell more than four strokes behind. Aside from McDowell, the recognizable names chasing both first round leader Alejandro Canizares included Order of Merit leader Henrik Stenson, second-ranked Justin Rose, and fourth-ranked Ian Poulter. Of course this being the European Tour there were also plenty of names that would draw nothing but blank stares from American golf fans, including the leader Canizares at 6-under, and a couple of lads named Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Marcus Fraser just one stroke behind. Stenson was just one stroke further adrift; with a good chance to add this Tour Championship trophy to the American one he took home two months ago in Atlanta.

Meanwhile our own PGA Tour has taken a page from the European playbook, in an effort to inject some competitive meaning into the slate of tournaments that follow September’s Tour Championship and the climax of the annual FedEx Cup money chase. October and November used to mean time off for most of the Tour’s star attractions, with the late season tournaments attracting lesser lights, especially those in danger of losing their Tour cards by falling outside the top 125 on the money list.

Now the season ends when the final putt falls in Atlanta, with a new season that crosses calendar years beginning with the next tournament a couple of weeks later. That change, and the resulting chance to win some early points in the next FedEx Cup race, has meant that major winners Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Ernie Els, as well as fan favorites Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, and Matt Kuchar, have all played in the past several weeks at tournaments that they were used to skipping in the past.

The change in schedule has also made it easier for our Tour to copy the European one in another way, by sanctioning as official events tournaments well outside the fifty states. The Euros open their season in South Africa and move on to Asia, the Middle East, India, and even the U.S. for WGC events and the season’s first major in April before finally playing a tournament in Europe in the season’s 16th week. Two of the five events played so far in the new PGA Tour season were in Asia, and this week it’s the OHL Classic at Mayakoba down in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. There only a handful of golfers completed their opening eighteen before weather moved in, forcing the remainder of the field off the course.

After this week the PGA Tour takes a break until the first week in January, when the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which used to be the first event of the year, tees off in Hawaii. The European Tour takes only a three-week break from mid-December until just New Year’s. The virtually year-round schedules and all of the globetrotting, not to mention purses that will total close to $100 million on the European Tour and nearly a quarter billion dollars on the PGA Tour, not counting another $35 million at the WGC events or nearly the same amount at the four majors, all speak to the enormous growth in professional golf. Some have even suggested that the PGA of America should consider playing its Championship, every season’s fourth and final major, in Asia as a way to further grow the popularity of the game.

Yet one can’t help but wonder if there comes a point of diminishing returns. Professional golfers are all independent contractors who make their own schedules. It’s great for a lesser tournament if a Phil Mickelson or Keegan Bradley joins the field, but ultimately it surely means they will pass on some other event later in the year. While ardent golf fans might recognize many of the players at a given week’s Insurance Company Open, the vast majority of pros make their decidedly good living in relative anonymity. Kiradech Aphibarnrat, anyone?  Or Brian Stuard, the early leader down in Mexico?  There are only so many stars to go around.

Meanwhile the plethora of tournaments leaves both tours effectively competing against one another, and trying to find ways to compel participation. Just this week Els, a four-time major champion, blasted the European Tour for its new requirement that in addition to being in the top 60 on the money list players had to compete in two of the three events leading up to the finale in order to join the field in Dubai. The requirement was an attempt on the part of the European Tour to ensure that its stars, virtually all of whom are also PGA Tour members and play a full U.S. schedule, would make an additional stop at a Euro event. On the other hand, events outside the U.S. have the advantage of being able to offer appearance fees to name golfers, something that our PGA Tour forbids. No one really thinks that Tiger Woods played in Turkey last week because of a longstanding desire to visit Antalya, do they?

For now both men’s tours are ascendant, their calendars chock full and purses steadily growing. But not so long ago that was the case with NASCAR, as it burst out of its southern roots and spread across the country. But as the France family, which owns the stock car racing circuit found, nothing grows perpetually. Of late the Sprint Cup series has raced far too often in front of empty seats. The leaders of the men’s professional golf tours did a remarkable job of continuing to grow during the recession, and should be commended for doing so. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of overreaching.

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