PGA Tour wants to emulate NASCAR
How monumental will the PGA Tour schedule overhaul be starting in 2007? Famously deliberate Ben Crane said, "Even I'll finish early."
That's how monumental. This strategic, made-for-TV maneuver will take some getting used to, but as we prepare for the yawn of a new era, remember "change" is not a dirty word, nor is "cable." I'm not sure about "incentivize," but commissioner Tim Finchem used that when predicting golfers' attitudes about a NASCAR-type playoff series, with FedEx doing the heavy lifting. Finchem's pronouncement came during a week when USA Today, our nation's conscience, published a picture of driver Carl Edwards performing what is described as his "trademark victory backflip" after a race in the very Chase for the Nextel Cup series that PGA Tour silk suits can't wait to copy.
Unlike Edwards, however, the pieces to golf's FedEx Cup puzzle absolutely and positively have not yet landed. Before Finchem's presentation to the world, he met with players to explain. Justin Leonard took it all in and deadpanned, "I'm expecting delivery of an overnight package with more details." Later, Finchem held a conference call with tournament directors, one of whom wondered whether to keep gallery ropes for his city's event in 2007 or burn them. Finchem's response was vague. Few player "starts" will be sacrificed toward a more "impactful" season finale featuring three playoffs preceding the Tour Championship that shall move to mid-September.
After that, a few second-tier tournaments probably will be farmed out to The Golf Channel, not necessarily a death sentence. "Monday Night Football" is going to ESPN, which just upped its baseball rights fee by 50 percent. Rest assured, however, that Tiger Woods will do a Baltusrol and fly home before the last ball drops. He might need the winter to decipher the FedEx Cup riddle. For most of the summer, the PGA Tour will de-emphasize money lists and world rankings by awarding points. But when playoffs commence it will be all about dough -- $10 million to the champion, in deferred income. (If you think the FedEx Cup is Byzantine, check out the PGA Tour pension plan.) Will a $10 million jackpot make you watch TV? More importantly, will it matter to Tiger? "It could be like going undefeated during the regular NFL season, then getting knocked out in the first round of playoffs," Woods theorized. "You could win all the majors and not win the FedEx Cup, or be player of the year and not win the money title."
Woods obviously knows what we all know, that Tony Stewart's triple-digit points lead over Greg Biffle after NASCAR's regular season was, for drama's sake, cut to five at the Chase's start. Asked if he would fulfill his playoff prescription by playing several weeks in a row, Woods smiled mischievously and said, "That's the intent."
Steve Williams, Woods' speed-freak caddie, noted a flaw in the Nextel Cup that could raise a caution flag to golf: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's two big wheels, didn't qualify. NASCAR is fixing to fix that. Also -- get this -- when drivers heard about the PGA Tour's move, they wondered about borrowing from those who borrowed. Wouldn't it be nice if we could pick our spots and not race every week? Look at Phil Mickelson. He skipped the Tour Championship.
Yes, some independent contractors are more independent than others, and rest assured Finchem consulted frequently with Woods and Mickelson about this scheme. Put Proposition 2007 to a vote among the entire tour roster, and it probably would be defeated.
"And I imagine folks running the European Tour can't be thrilled, either," Nick Faldo said.
But the PGA Tour isn't a democracy. Few businesses are, and Finchem is trying something because his organization doesn't own or operate any of the four majors or any playoffs. Purists howled when baseball went to the designated hitter, when the NBA debuted the 3-point line, when the NFL allowed instant replay, when hockey rewrote its rule book. The PGA Tour isn't altering dimensions of the ball or the hole, only attempting to eliminate post-major autumn apathy. But you have a right and duty to be skeptical.
Whether playoffs are required after golf's four Super Bowls is debatable. Three major markets will be stages: New York (Barclays Classic), Boston (Deutsche Bank) and Chicago (Western Open). The first playoff could rotate among courses in the metropolitan area, the second to New England venues. But the blueprint for the third is baffling. The Western would remain at Cog Hill G&CC in 2006 and 2007, then travel in even-numbered years, to Hazeltine in Minneapolis, Bellerive in St. Louis, Crooked Stick in Indianapolis. This makes sense only in 2012, with the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Why would the tour love Chicago, then leave it? I have incentivized myself to find the wisdom in this concept, and I have failed. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine
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