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IF YOU HAPPENED to be in Las Vegas last Friday night at the concert hall within the Planet Hollywood Resort, then for one heady evening the PGA Tour felt like the center of the universe. The second round was in the books at the inaugural Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (phew!), and now the eponymous tournament host was headlining a concert to benefit the Shriners. Every player in the field had been given tickets, and in the minutes before the music began, clusters of off-duty Tour players mingled in the lobby, wolfishly eyeing the parade of talent and looking satisfied with the knowledge that this glittery evening wouldn't be happening without their tournament. ¶ From an anthropological standpoint it was fascinating to observe the players in a nonnative environment. Dustin Johnson, the 24-year-old rookie who was still flying high from his first victory last month, channeled Timberlake with a rakishly worn tie as part of a carefully put-together hipster ensemble. John Daly kept one hand wrapped around a bottle of beer and the other around his date. If the standard Tour-player uniform on this night was jeans, button-down shirt and cowboy boots, Brian Gay wore it with the most panache, thanks to snakeskin kicks, skintight denim, a humongous belt buckle and a bejeweled shirt unbuttoned all the way down to here. Stephen Ames had missed the cut earlier in the day, but he couldn't swallow his grin as he pressed the flesh in the lobby. "This concert is the whole reason I played here," said Ames. With a nod to his sons who were underfoot—Justin, 11, and Ryan, 9—he said, "There's no way they were going to miss this."
The 3 1/2-hour performance lasted until 1 a.m. and included a lineup of the biggest acts in pop music, such as Rihanna, Leona Lewis, the Jonas Brothers and the group that inspired Timberlake to first pick up a microphone, the '90s sensation Boyz II Men. Timberlake blew the roof off with a raucous closing set during which at various times he shared the stage with Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, 50 Cent and, not least, Lionel Richie. At the start of the concert Timberlake addressed the crowd, thanking it for helping to raise more than $1 million for the Shriners. Singling out the Tour players in the audience, he also mocked despair over all the birdies that were being made at TPC Summerlin during daylight hours. Said Timberlake, who looked like a credible single-digit handicapper during the Wednesday pro-am, "You guys make me sick!" If a dude who wakes up in the morning next to Jessica Biel can be moved to jealousy, then the PGA Tour as an institution must be doing something right.
In fact, the flashy concert was of a piece with a successful debut for this reconstituted tournament. Timberlake's star power was a factor in attracting a stronger-than-usual field, but so too was dropping the tedious weeklong pro-am format and the cumbersome multicourse arrangement. The weather was perfect, the putting surfaces were as smooth as the green felt of a blackjack table, and the $4.1 million purse covered plenty of gambling losses.
The modern Tour has always been a make-believe world of easy money, all-you-can-eat buffets and gleaming courtesy cars—in Las Vegas, they were all Audis—but even with the respite of a night of revelry, there was an ominous feeling in the air last week.
BY ANY NAME the Vegas Tour stop has always been about cold, hard cash because the tournament comes in the dying weeks of the season when many are playing for their livelihoods. This year's stressfest was compounded by larger developments, which have left much of the Tour fretting about the future.
"We're like everybody else—all we're talking about is the economy, the election and a little bit about the Rays," says Davis Love III, who tied for sixth, his second top 10 in three Fall Series events. Except for the World Series--bound Rays, these are troubling topics for Tour players. Paul Azinger estimated last week that his colleagues are 99% Republican (and that may be a conservative number) primarily because the players vote their pocketbooks. An analysis by the Tax Policy Center, recently cited in Rolling Stone, estimated that for those who make more than $1 million a year—which, including endorsements, is pretty much the entire Tour—the out-of-pocket difference between the tax plans of Barack Obama and John McCain is nearly $270,000. If Obama rides his lead in the polls to victory next month, Tour players will be feeling pain that is more than ideological.
THE MELTDOWNS on Wall Street and in the banking industry have also resonated deeply on Tour. Eleven of this year's title sponsors and three presenting sponsors are drawn from the financial services industry. The Tour's putative sixth major, the Wachovia Championship, is already suffering an identity crisis. On Oct. 3 Wells Fargo bought the faltering Wachovia Corp. in a coupling of megabanks.
Earlier this year Wachovia signed an extension to continue its sponsorship of the Charlotte-based tournament through 2014. Wells Fargo is obligated to honor the contract, but uncertainty about all the details has compelled tournament officials to stop the presses on printing tickets and promotional materials.
"If you're not at least a little bit worried about our sponsor situation, then you've been hiding under a rock," says Azinger.
Or you're PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who is paid to be an optimist. "We've seen this before in the last 20 years," Finchem says, "but when there have been other recessions, the Tour has maintained sponsorship at nearly 100 percent and in some ways has been strengthened. No question corporate expenditures are now being scrutinized more than ever, but I believe that helps us because companies get great value with our product and the unique audience we attract." More to the point, every title sponsor on Tour is signed through at least 2010, which means the schedule (and prize money) will remain unaffected in the short term.