Will PGA Tour's new plan work?
ATLANTA -- There was no mistaking the theme of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem's annual State of the Tour address on Wednesday. That's because the message itself greeted everyone who entered the interview room in the form of a highlighted graphic on a flat-screen television:
"Strategy for the Future."
Although the speech regularly given during Tour Championship week usually focuses on the past season, there was no checking the rearview mirror this time around. With a new television contract set to begin in 2007, Finchem announced the PGA Tour will change with the times, producing a schedule that should offer a more dramatic finish to the season and one that will compete less with the National Football League and other autumn sporting events.
Here's the gist of what Finchem revealed: The opening eight months of the tour schedule will be considered the FedEx Cup. During this time, players will earn points that will enable them to qualify for special late-season events.
Those events will be known as the Championship Series. Four tournaments, starting in August and continuing into September -- which will, according to Finchem, be spread across the final two preseason NFL weekends and into the first two of the regular season -- will act as the dramatic finish the tour has always wanted and never had, culminating with the Tour Championship in early- to mid-September.
(Another piece of the schedule, Quest for the Card, will take place in conjunction with, or later then, the Championship Series. These events will focus less on the tour's top players and more on those still trying to gain full status for the next season.)
To put it into more broad sports terms, think of the FedEx Cup as an eight-month regular season. The Championship Series will serve as the playoffs and the Tour Championship will be the tour's Super Bowl.
Or so it hopes. Currently, the season-ending tournament is thought of as more Pro Bowl than Super Bowl. Phil Mickelson, the third-ranked player on the money list, skipped the event because of "personal reasons," though it has been reported that he wanted to spend Halloween with his children and wouldn't be able to make it for Tuesday morning's pro-am round -- a necessity for players entered in an event.
By stressing the importance of the Championship Series, the tour is hoping its elite players follow suit by competing in each of these events, which will subsequently increase fan interest and television ratings.
These changes are hardly surprising. The tour has admitted the need for a stronger finish to its season, one that will more effectively highlight its top players during a NASCAR-like end-of-season points race.
It will also counteract the current feeling that professional golf seems to get lost on the sports landscape during the crowded fall season.
But for every piece of the puzzle that was uncovered Wednesday, another was still missing from solving the overall equation. Some examples:
• What happens if the players don't buy into the Championship Series idea?
"We think players are going to be motivated and incentivized to actually play more," Finchem said. "Our television we think is going to be not only more impactful but more balanced because we'll have a better number of huge profile events at the end of the season which can tie to our different television packages. We think overall field strength will be supported, as well, and we think fan interest and some of the other things we're going to do, different platforms, can bring fans to be related to FedEx Cup competition during the course of the year."
Sure, but the same thing was said about the Tour Championship when it was invented in 1987, but it has clearly devolved into an event that elite players (like Mickelson) don't feel they must play.
Don't think it won't happen again. Here's what Tiger Woods had to say about the subject: "You can still pick and choose. You don't have to play in those events at the end of the year, but if you want to win the title of a Cup Series, you're going to have to."
Uh, not exactly a ringing endorsement.
• Does the revamped schedule mean the end of certain tournaments currently on the schedule?
"Right now on our drafts, the total number of player starts will vary hardly at all from '07 to '06," Finchem said. "With respect to any particular tournament that might not be on the schedule, it's possible, but it won't be for the reason of reducing tournaments; it will be for other reasons. It may be a situation where it's a tournament that just, for whatever reason, doesn't have the strength overall to be on the PGA Tour."
That math doesn't seem to add up. By reducing the schedule by two months and still keeping the same amount of events, the tour clearly has some unfinished business. Sure, the Quest for the Cup tournaments will still be around, but these might look like glorified Nationwide Tour stops.
• How will the points be determined and distributed during the FedEx Cup race?
"You could have a system that's basically flat, you could have a system that's basically tied to prize money, you could have a system that's basically tied to strength of field," Finchem said. "My guess is we're going to end up with something that involves all three."
Uh-oh. Herein lies potentially the largest issue for the tour. Following players who need to earn a finite amount of money for certain exemptions is tough enough on the fans. Will a mathematically-advanced points system detract from the enjoyment of the sport?
Hint: Just ask a college football fan what he thinks of the BCS.
The first step to improving the PGA Tour has begun. The tour has admitted that it needs change and accepts that.
But this story is far from over. It will be interesting to see what the puzzle looks like when all the pieces finally fit together.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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