Tour’s Latest Recipe Half-Baked

You wanna make it about money? All right, we’ll make it about money.

First, it doesn’t matter what month you start the season, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are not going to play their first event of the new year until January at Torrey Pines. And they’re not going to play past September unless they get a boatload of money to do it.


Speaking of which, second, if you make the HSBC in China and the Malaysian event regular Tour events or WGC events or whatever, the sponsors will no longer be allowed to pay appearance money and Tiger and Phil for sure won’t play in them now.

Third, speaking of not playing, the PGA Tour is going to pick the pockets of the 1.4 players per year who go straight from the Qualifying Tournament to the Tour. By preventing those 14 players in a 10-year span from getting immediate access to the Tour, you’re making them play for 1/10th the money on the Nationwide or whatever you’re going to call it now Tour. Attorneys refer to that as restraint of trade.

Fourth – you want to keep going? – the FedEx Cup just lost whatever significance it managed to muster in the first four years. By starting the season in the fall and making all those events worth a bunch of points, it limits who’s likely to win. As Bubba Watson said on Golf Channel, he’s not going to play in 30 events a year, so the FedEx Cup is off the board for him. Which means that Martin Laird or somebody is going to win the $10 mil and let’s see how FedEx founder and chairman Fred Smith likes that.

The commissioner of any sports league is charged with the sole job of protecting the integrity of the game, not making the players rich and the sponsors happy. If he does the former, the latter always takes care of itself. Ask Roger Goodell.

Instead, the commissioner of the PGA Tour is more concerned with brand development than player development. And that upside-down set of priorities is all set to confuse the fans, tick off the players – and other worldwide tours – and leave some sponsors in for a big surprise.

Tim Finchem’s grand master plan to turn the Tour into one big TV show – with the ad buys fully subscribed – is designed to promote products and services and if a golf tournament with some stars happens to break out in the bargain, well, maybe the fans might like some of that, too.

Starting in 2013, the PGA Tour is going to turn the calendar inside out and begin the “season” in October with what are now Fall Series events. Then, around Thanksgiving, there will be a break of a few weeks for the holidays, and start back again after the New Year in 2014 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. The season will end in September with the Tour Championship.

Also beginning in 2013, the time-honored Qualifying Tournament will no longer be a direct route to the PGA Tour. Instead, Q-School graduates will be forced onto the Nationwide Tour, which will be renamed after a new umbrella sponsor is found. Talks are underway, but “close is not the right word,” Finchem said at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

At the end of the “season,” the players who finish 126-200 on the FedEx Cup points list – not the money list, as has been the historical barometer – will join the top 75 players on the Nationwide Tour – they will still use the money list – in a three-tournament series to determine 50 spots on the next “season’s” Tour. No one is yet certain exactly how this is going to work, which can be said for this entire plan.

“I think this process clearly makes the Nationwide Tour the primary path to the PGA Tour, and in doing so, it will tie the Nationwide Tour in the minds of fans, particularly, much more strongly, tie them much more strongly to the PGA Tour, to the PGA Tour brand and what the PGA Tour is all about,” Finchem said, somewhat circuitously.

But when you drill down, even a little, the primary motivator for most of these changes is to attract a big-time umbrella sponsor to replace Nationwide, which ends its involvement with the developmental tour at the end of 2012.

“There was never any question that from the get‑go of this discussion, anything you do to make the competition drive more of the access through that tour is going to drive more value to the sponsor,” Finchem said.

However, this could be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The schedule changes are not going to make certain title sponsors on the PGA Tour very happy, most likely Hyundai and Sony, who sponsor the Tour events in Hawaii. Those tournaments were the traditional calendar year kickoffs for the Tour and now they will take place several weeks into the season.

Those events have always struggled to attract the top stars and now in the midst of the holiday dormancy, they are likely to have even more trouble coming up with a quality field. Tour players can go to Hawaii anytime they want, what with frequent flier miles and fractional jet ownership.

The ripple effects of these changes are already starting to be felt. The PGA of Australia is more than a little concerned about how this new season start will come crashing down on the three major events Down Under – the Australian Masters, Australian Open and Australian PGA, all of which take place in December. Officials there are worried that the Australian stars who play the PGA Tour will want to stay in the States when the season starts in order to get off to a good FedEx Cup start, thus bypassing the Australian majors.

“There is no doubt these changes are only designed to benefit the U.S. Tour and not designed with regard to implications on other tours. That’s abundantly clear,” Brian Thorburn, chief executive of the PGA of Australia, told The (Melbourne) Age.

The biggest loser in this melodrama is the Qualifying Tournament. The “Fall Classic,” as it was known to the players, was one of the most stress-filled events of the year. The chance to get to the PGA Tour – or back to the Tour – through a weeklong torture test is the greatest testament to the meritocracy of professional golf. To effectively lose it is to do away with one of the greatest events in the game.

Finchem, however, looks through a different pair of glasses.

“The second advantage we see here is that we feel it will much more effectively communicate the drama of that unique competition of the Qualifying School, because there will be a year‑long buildup,” he said. “It will be promoted on television during the course of the year. The final events will be positioned on an off‑week on the PGA Tour so that we can command good television exposure, and we can bring the atmosphere and the drama of that competition to the fans.”

Finchem has been drinking his own Kool-Aid if he believes that one. In this scenario, Q-School should be reduced to four rounds instead of six and doesn’t need to be on television because, frankly, no one except the players and their families will care who’s going to the developmental tour.

“It also educates the player about what the PGA Tour is all about, what the volunteers are there for, how our charitable focus works,” Finchem said. “So when they come to the PGA Tour, they are more knowledgeable about the things that are important, whether it be sponsors, charities, whatever. So that’s really the question.”

No, the question is, “Why mess with the integrity of the game when it really wasn’t necessary?” Unfortunately, no one in his right mind knows the answer.

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