PGA Tour doesn't need a dramatic finish
The real problem for the PGA Tour is not when the Tour Championship is played, or even that it occasionally produces Bart Bryant as the winner instead of Tiger Woods, but rather it is something completely out of the tour's control.
Moving the Tour Championship to September in 2007 will not change the fact that the five biggest revenue-generating events in golf - the five events that produce boffo TV ratings -- do not belong to the PGA Tour. The tour may think it is creating a late-season sensation with the three-tournament run-up to the Tour Championship, but the fact is that the major championships are and will remain the centerpiece of the PGA Tour schedule. In announcing the plan for the FedEx Cup last Wednesday, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem referred several times to the fact that playoffs in the team sports get television ratings that are two to four times higher than regular-season ratings. What Finchem failed to note is that professional golf has five events that show the same sort of ratings jump.
Those events are The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and, every other year, the Ryder Cup. The problem for the tour is that the television rights for those events are not owned by the PGA Tour -- and no schedule change can alter that reality. The major championships are a major obstacle for the tour. It may well be that the problem here is that PGA Tour is trying to make the professional game something it isn't. Moving the Tour Championship from November to mid-September and away from the meat of the football season is probably a good idea. But the simple truth is that golf will never produce NFL-like TV ratings, and that is not the fault of golf.
The problem here is that the tour is trying to compare apples to oranges. Football is a team sport. Golf is an individual sport. Playoffs make sense in team sports. But in golf, as in tennis, sprinkling four major championships throughout the schedule creates better drama. Why get locked into the notion that there must be a conclusion to the season? This seems to be a case of the tour letting the team sports define it, rather than defining itself. One of the glories of golf is its traditions, and high among those traditions is the role of the four major championships in defining the success of a player's season or their career. If Tiger Woods wins two majors in 2007 but fails to even qualify for the FedEx Cup, do you think he will view his season as a flop? Not likely.
What do you think the public will be more likely to remember in 2010 -- the 2007 Masters winner, or the person who captured the inaugural FedEx Cup? It is perhaps unique among sports that in golf the most valuable events belong to Augusta National Golf Club (Masters), U.S. Golf Association (U.S. Open), Royal and Ancient Golf Club (British Open), and PGA of America (PGA Championship and Ryder Cup). The fact that golf cannot compete against the NFL and college football for TV ratings is completely overblown, and perhaps irrelevant. Football has several built-in fan bases that guarantee it a mass audience. Gambling, for one. Do you think the ratings would be as high if point spreads were not published? Alumni, for another. People stay young by following the colleges they went to, and they extend the pride for their school by following its graduates in the professional ranks. Fantasy leagues, for a third, although that really is part of the gambling issue.
Golf is what it is -- a great game played by great players on a very sensible stage. Sunday's closing round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta was a perfect example of the appeal currently in the men's professional game. Here was Cinderella in spikes, Bart Bryant, trying to hold off the best in the world -- Tiger Woods. And such is the nature of golf and the irresistible appeal of Woods that, even with a rather large lead by Bryant, the event was too compelling to turn off.
In golf, disaster always looms right around the corner for a player like Bryant. And in Woods the game truly has a player who can make magic happen. Remember, this is a guy who was once seven behind with seven holes to play -- and won by two. When he's in the hunt -- no matter how far back he is -- Woods is still well worth watching. There is much great in golf's future. Woods has clearly re-emerged as the unquestionable best player in the world, and he seems poised to make a run at Jack Nicklaus for the title of the best ever in the game. That is going to make for some very exciting television in the future.
There will be many, many weeks during the four years of the next television contract in which Woods will provide some must-see TV for the networks. And even though the ultimate run at Nicklaus will be played out in the major championships - remember, the number Tiger is chasing is the 18 professional and 20 overall majors by Jack -- that drama will carry over to regular tour events. Golf's best days are ahead of it. Sometimes it seems as if those who run the game of golf forget that one of the appeals it has, one of the reason it grew in popularity over the last 15 years, is precisely because it is not one of the team sports. Fans grew tired of strikes and lockouts, overpaid players with guaranteed long-term contracts, talented athletes unschooled and undisciplined in fundamentals of their game, and an utter lack of loyalty to team and teammates.
Golf might never get the TV ratings of football, but I'll take the sport with Tiger Woods over the one with Terrell Owens any day. Perhaps the PGA Tour needs to remember that a lot of people like it because it is not the NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball.
Perhaps it is the team sports that should try to become more like golf, rather than golf trying to become more like the team sports.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose : How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.
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