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Why The PGA Tour Is Chasing After NASCAR

Originally Posted: December 19, 2006

Tom Clavin

Given its persistent problems with slow play, one would think that golf would be the last sport to have something important in common with auto racing. But 2007 is going to see a big change in the PGA Tour, one inspired by NASCAR.

The big finish to the NASCAR season is the pursuit of the Nextel Cup. A few years ago the powers that be created the Nextel series of events as a way to maintain the popularity of auto racing with spectators and especially TV audiences well into autumn when football is dominating U.S. sports action. The plan has worked fairly well.

The PGA Tour has been facing the same problem. Once the last putt falls in the PGA Championship in August, interest in professional golf wanes. There is a spike in September when the Ryder Cup in even-numbered years and the Presidents Cup in odd-numbered years take place. After that, though, it had been all downhill even though the PGA Tour season didn't end until the Tour Championship in early November. A sure sign of how that event - consisting of only the top 30 moneymakers of the year - has diminished in significance is that both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson didn't bother to show up.

The purses of the early to mid-autumn tournaments didn't reflect the decline in audience interest. The first-place check was still in the $800,000 and above range. That meant sponsors and the TV networks still had to ante up similar money to what they were paying for June and July tourneys even though millions of eyeballs had switched from golf to football. This couldn't continue, especially with a new TV contract, set to take effect in 2007, being negotiated.

Tim Finchem
Photo PGA Tour

So Tim Finchem and his crew at the PGA Tour took a look at what NASCAR was doing and decided to imitate the racing folks. It has partnered with FedEx to create the FedEx Cup, and the new PGA Tour schedule has been arranged accordingly.

There are to be 39 events in the 2007 "regular season," culminating with the Tour Championship September 13-16, a good six weeks earlier than its previous position. The top players such as Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, and Vijay Singh have to be happy with this because on September 17 they can go home and stay there to count all their cash, or focus on special events, corporate outings, and even the "after season" tournaments during autumn to rake in even more cash.

Like the Nextel Cup, the FedEx Cup has a big payoff - a $10 million prize at conclusion of the Tour Championship. The way it works is, during the course of the "regular" season that concludes in September, players will accumulate points based on how they finish in tournaments and especially the four majors. The player with the most points is presented with the big bucks. Inevitably, there will be some confusion because up to 2007 ultimate success for the year - and usually Player of the Year honors - went to the guy who earned the most money. However, in '07 it will be possible for two different players to have collected the most money and the most points.

Because the regular season has been shortened and because even Woods and Mickelson won't want to pass on a $10 million check, there is less room for the top players to take weeks off, meaning we are more likely to see them competing against each other week after week. The PGA Tour did something else smart: During the last few weeks of the schedule, tournaments will be held in three major metropolitan areas - New York (Barclays Classic), Boston (Deutsche Bank Championship), and the Championship Series in Chicago.

As a result, Finchem was able to pull a $3 billion rabbit out of his hat - the amount the networks will pay the PGA Tour during the new TV contract that begins next month. One downside for viewers, however, is that the money proved too steep for ABC and ESPN and thus they won't be covering PGA Tour golf. Vastly increasing its coverage is The Golf Channel, but not all cable TV systems carry it.

There will be tournaments after the Tour Championship, a sort of after-the-season season. There will be seven PGA Tour events that are not part of the FedEx Cup but for the winners they do count as official victories. Only players who have earned a minimum number of points can play in these last seven tournaments, the idea being that the fall season will feature more top players instead of watching unfamiliar, on-the-bubble players struggling to keep their tour cards for 2008. (However, it is not required that the top players participate.) Among the tourneys are the Valero Texas Open and Frys.com Open in Las Vegas in October and the Walt Disney World Resort Classic, which ends on November 4.

One other rather big change: The Players Championship, which the PGA Tour considers the "fifth major," moves from March to May 10-13, though still at the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, Florida with the famous par-3 17th hole surrounded by water.

Will all of this work? I hope so. Otherwise, the PGA Tour might have to accept that like the other major sports, there is a six-month window of keen interest on the part of fans and then it's time to wait until next year's season. If that happens, some good tournaments will be lopped off the schedule and there will be fewer opportunities for younger pros.

Interesting Note: Tiger Woods is on the cover of the most recent issue of Golf World because he has been named that magazine's Newsmaker of the Year. One more piece of evidence that Woods has taken over Michael Jordan's role as most exciting American athlete. It is Woods's 63rd appearance on the cover of Golf World since his first one on December 13, 1996.

Another Interesting Note: Loyal readers of "Links Life" will see a change in the column in 2007. While there will still be some coverage of and comments on the professional tours, the column is going to have a more local focus.

In one of my first columns I extolled the virtues of Long Island and especially eastern Long Island as comprising a Mecca for golf lovers. Future "Links Life" reports will detail why. We'll look at the world-famous courses that are within a 3-iron of each other - among them Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, and the Maidstone - and also the emerging gems such as the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, and Friar's Head in Baiting Hollow, designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. We will also profile head pros, Hamptons golf events, resorts that are luring Hamptons golfers, where to get golf apparel and equipment, and more good golf stuff for the 2007 season.

I will close 2006 with a shameless, self-promoting plug: My new book, "Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, An Epic Storm, and An Untold Rescue," is just out from Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press. It is not a golf story but it is a ripping sea yarn about Typhoon Cobra and the Pacific Fleet in December 1944. Hope you'll give it a try.

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