Now that we've completed another West Coast swing, which despite the brilliance of Phil Mickelson could be characterized as a tired body stretching for eight weeks before getting out of bed, and now that we've watched golf telecasts in which commercial upon commercial featured players who weren't competing in the actual tournament, and now that we've heard quite enough about Greg Norman's deep-sea diving, Davis Love III's race-car driving and John Daly's guitar playing, the time is right to take the folks at Ponte Vedra at their word and see if, as their slogan goes, anything is possible on the PGA Tour.
To make a believer out of me, all the Tour has to do is get all of its headliners to show up—once—at the same tournament. And I mean at a normal, workaday event, say the Colonial, or Hartford.
Oh, well, another slogan found wanting.
The Tour's top players are competing less and less as their business schedules are filled with more and more, and commissioner Tim Finchem is saddled with bylaws that render him virtually powerless to reverse the trend. As an increasing number of stars skip events, established tournaments, week in and week out, are lacking the highest level of competition the Tour can provide. Only the four majors, along with The Players Championship, present the best against the best.
The irony is that the Tour has become the victim of the game's exploding popularity. As the top players have become more marketable, they have seen their off-course opportunities multiply and their wealth increase to a point where prize money, even the more than $65 million in Tour purses offered in 1996, is no longer their main source of income. Today, once a touring pro is established as a player of repute, he can put in as little as 15 to 25 competitive weeks a year—most of it aimed at peaking for majors, the true career makers. In the remaining time he can play in lucrative unofficial events, collect appearance money overseas and design golf courses, and in the process he can make more, much more, than he would win on Tour.
Chasing a buck is not the only thing that makes the extra time off attractive. U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin spends a fair number of his noncompetitive weeks at home with his family. He finds that a schedule of 21 Tour events a year, as opposed to the 28 or so that he used to play, leaves him fresh and eager, and has improved his performance. The road map to playing less and playing better, originally perfected by Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, was followed perfectly last year by Norman, who won the money title while entering only 16 events. The problem is that the Tour has 45 tournaments a year, and those that never see a Norman or a Daly or a Pavin suffer.
Still, it is pointless to blame the players for taking advantage of their position, which is based solely on performance. The ability to control their schedule is one of the joys of the profession. Yet if the trend of name players entering fewer tournaments is to be reversed, some freedoms will have to be reined in. Finchem could raise beyond 15 the minimum number of tournaments required for Tour membership, or mandate that no player skip any tournament more than five years in a row, or make the release policy for foreign or TV events more stringent. At the moment he is unwilling to make any of these moves. He argues that the top players still play in about the same number of events, that tournaments are no longer dependent on the presence of a few key players and that TV ratings and attendance figures support the premise that the increased number of better players adequately fills whatever void is created when big names don't show up. He believes that improving tournament sites, their purses and their dates will have a positive effect on field strength.
Still, Finchem is wary that the tail may be wagging the dog, especially when he sees Norman paring down his schedule and Pavin, a native Californian and two-time champion in Hawaii, playing only La Costa and Los Angeles on the West Coast. Finchem knows that the Tour must provide the highest level of competition possible every week. If the Tour is to have meaning, each of its tournaments must be meaningful. At the moment that's one thing that isn't possible.