The Players' struggle to earn acceptance isn't helped by Tiger Woods's withdrawal and by surging overseas tours
When asked to comment on the recent and untimely death of Spanish golfing great Seve Ballesteros, 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell responded, "Apparently, God needed a short-game lesson." After dropping out of the 2011 Players Championship today because of a leg injury, Tiger Woods could also use some divine intervention five months into the 2011 PGA season. As the former champ continues his slump, it is the specter of Ballesteros and the surging European Tour that hangs over TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Are American golf fans still on board? Apparently, and they're teeing it up as much as they're TiVoing it up. According to PGA Performance Trak, total rounds played are up 6.6 percent for the year through March, and overall golf fee revenue is up 4.5 percent. "Over the first three months of this year, the golf industry has continued to demonstrate both its stability and resiliency. The numbers we are seeing so far in 2011 are ones I am sure many small businesses today would be thrilled to have," says Joe Steranka, chief executive of the Professional Golfers Association of America. "Golf is an important part of millions of lives in our country because it's fun, it takes people outside to healthy environs, and provides those special times with friends and family that we value so strongly today." At TPC Sawgrass, however, the lack of Players Championship participation by such prominent European Tour members as Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood has tongues wagging in the media tents and corporate chalets, as does this just-released PGA Tour statistic: Woods, who has 14 major championships and 71 PGA Tour wins under his webbed belt, has dropped to No. 8 in the world golf rankings. At No. 1 is England's Paul Casey, who has zero major wins … and just one PGA Tour victory. The Players Championships: Major or Minor? Despite NBC's best efforts to hype the event to the hilt, most PGA Tour pros, when polled, don't consider the Players Championship to be the equivalent of golf's four stated Majors, giving it lesser status while acknowledging it is several steps above run-of-the-mill PGA Tour events. This continued lack of respect for the Tour's flagship event, adjacent to PGA Tour headquarters, takes former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman by surprise. The Players "might have approached the status of the four tournaments currently accepted as major championships sooner," Beman told the Florida Times-Union, "I think it's taken longer than I thought it would take. … I felt that it would have a little higher status with every player in the world, so that no player, regardless of what his agent said to him, would ever consider stepping aside." The Players was one of Beman's babies, and he has to be pleased with its current purse of $9.5 million and winning share of $1.71 million. That sum would likely be much lower without the groundwork that Beman laid: When he first became PGA Tour Commissioner in 1974, the total purse for the entire year was $8 million. When he retired in 1994, annual Tour prize money had grown to roughly $100 million (which subsequently almost tripled to $276 million in 2010).
Since the tournament's move from late March to May four years ago, tournament organizers have continually upgraded the facility to provide more and more amenities for fans. The tournament has nearly doubled the number of restrooms on the course and multiplied the number of "cooling stations" where patrons can escape Florida's sweltering mid-May heat. One major fan-backed change this year at the 18th hole: Confined bleachers have been removed, and patrons can now sit on airy, grassy banks called "the Bluff." The Politics of Golf The other major change to the Players Championship this year is the inclusion of two-day World Golf Hall of Fame inductions to kick off the week-long tournament festivities. On Monday, at the St. Johns County Convention Center in St. Augustine and carried live by the Golf Channel, the World Golf Hall of Fame Class of 2011 was honored. It comprises golfers Ernie Els, Jumbo Ozaki, the late Jock Hutchinson, and Doug Ford, now the oldest living Masters champion, and also includes late CBS Sports Producer Frank Chirkinian and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Bush, an avid recreational golfer, was honored for his chairmanship of golf's First Tee program from 1997 until earlier this year. Under his tenure, more than 4.7 million youngsters were assisted through the organization's wide array of programs. America's 41st Commander-in-Chief probably wouldn't hesitate to step up to the challenge posed to President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner by Golf Digest. Leading up to next month's U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, editors of that publication have called on representatives of the President and the congressman to play a bipartisan round together as a demonstration of unity. Both are avid golfers—although the single-digit handicap Boehner would have to give the 16-24 index Obama a few strokes—who have reportedly been trying to schedule a round together for months. "We think it would be good for them and good for this country," said Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde. To further prove the point, the publication has printed up 10,000 Obama-Boehner "Let's Play Golf" buttons to distribute around the U.S. Open tournament. Finally, a likely summertime political struggle: Not on board with the PGA Tour's proposed changes to golf's end-of-season qualifying process are an elite group of pros who attended a presentation in New Orleans two weeks ago. The proposal includes a "three-event, season-ending series mixing Tour players outside the top 125 in earnings with the top 50 Nationwide Tour finishers," according to GolfWeek, as well as adjusting Q-School to award Nationwide cards alone. The revised qualifying proposal "has received preliminary approval from the Tour's Policy Board, but the board must vote on it again before the proposal can be finalized." Our Tour vs. Their Tour(s) Further clouding the decisions of international golf pros about how much time to spend on America's PGA Tour are increasing can't-say-no opportunities overseas. In 2012, South Africa will hold its first World Golf Championship event, known as the Tournament of Hope, which, by offering prize money of $10 million, is the richest tournament in international golf. The five-year agreement to host the event was cemented after meetings at the Masters between South Africa's Sunshine Tour Commissioner, the PGA Tour, and the International Federation of PGA Tours. Its philanthropic focus will be on increasing awareness of HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa. The Asian Tour, meanwhile—a proving ground for such pros as Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi before they made a name for themselves in the U.S.—is expanding its reach via a new agreement with Golf Channel.
The deal was completed by Asian Tour Media, a new joint venture between the tour and the Asia-Pacific division of Britain's IMG Media. The 12-year contract covers all aspects of the TV broadcast, from production and talent to the tour's TV distribution, which encompasses 420 million households across 130 countries and includes such partners as Sky Sports in the U.K., Fox in Australia, ESPN in India, and networks that carry the tour in China, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The new Golf Channel deal will mark the Asian Tour's first regular TV exposure in North America by airing a one-hour package of highlights each week during the 21-tournament Asian Tour season, from February to November. IMG executives are hoping that the Asian Tour arrangement mirrors the success of European Tour Productions, which it formed in the early 1990s and which now churns out more than 700 hours of programming each year. Also announced by Golf Channel this week: The irrepressible David Feherty, 14-year CBS Sports veteran and former PGA Tour and European Tour pro, will premier his own prime-time show on the cable network next month. Feherty is the first original Golf Channel series created since it became a member of the NBC Sports Group following NBCUniversal's acquisition by Comcast (CMCSA) in January. The Northern Ireland native claims that no topic is off-limits, the show will include interviews with people outside the golf world, and he is "interested in looking at the periphery of events." *** A final word on Feherty's former European Tour colleague Ballesteros: As reported by Yahoo Sports' Jay Busbee, in the wake of Ballesteros's death, a movement is building to change the European Tour logo from the silhouette of six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon to Ballesteros's image. While the Vardon logo is only two years old, Busbee notes that Ballesteros, "more than any other golfer, built the European Tour into what it is now." As four of world golf's top five rankings are currently held by European Tour players, as three of the last four Majors champions hail from the European tour, and as the Ryder Cup, a Ballesteros stronghold, is firmly in the hands of the Euros, perhaps it is indeed time to give the Spaniard his indelible due.