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Golf tries to get off the rough

Loss of tournament sponsors combined with the Tiger Woods drama are hitting the sport hard.

December 08, 2009|Bill Dwyre
  • Tiger Woods, who skipped his own tournament at Sherwood Country Club last week, looms over many a PGA Tour scoreboard when he's playing in a tournament. His tarnished image and the dwindling money from sponsors will make 2010 a year of potential struggle.
Tiger Woods, who skipped his own tournament at Sherwood Country Club last… (Allan Henry / US Presswire )

Think of the current state of men's professional golf as a series of angry weather fronts, all moving fast on a collision course. When this happens off Cape Cod, fishermen die.

Golf's imperfect storm is with us. A little of the bloom is off the rose. The salad days are going on without the dressing.

Monday was media day for the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament at La Quinta. Media days, by nature, are benign. Nice things are said, the future is painted as rosy and everybody has lunch and plays golf.

That was mostly the case for the Bob Hope, except that, during the normal round of speech making, the focal point of which was to be defending champion Pat Perez, official John Foster could not avoid addressing the obvious in this public forum.

Foster, the tournament's president and chairman, welcomed attendees to media day for the Bob Hope Classic and pointed out that there was a name missing in that title.

"We are moving on, and so are they," Foster said.

"They" is Chrysler, longtime sponsor. This was the first significant public statement of that parting of the ways, although those who paid close attention knew the end had been likely.

At last year's tournament, Chrysler did a smart thing by toning down its public exposure in the midst of a national financial crisis in which it had taken government bailout money to stay afloat. The reasoning was correct. It is bad form to throw parties -- and pat oneself on the back with big signs and self-serving speeches -- at a golf tournament when you are on the public dole.

Chrysler paid its tournament bills, lived up to its commitments and said in a statement that it had a contract with the tournament through 2010 that it would live up to. Then, later in the year, bankruptcy came and Chrysler's commitment to the Bob Hope event was wiped off its books by the court.

"There were no negotiations," Foster said, sounding a bit miffed, like somebody who wanted a little warning before he got fired.

On the face of it, this is small potatoes, especially since tournament officials had stashed away money for a rainy day and can make 2010 appear to be business as usual. Yes, the total prize money is down from $5.1 million to $5 million and the winner's purse from $918,000 to $900,000 -- both among the smaller take-aways on the men's tour.

And yes, the many charities used to getting an annual boost from the Bob Hope will still get one, though possibly smaller.

Still, the trend line will be downward for the immediate future. Same for golf in general.

Consider that the 2010 tour, which starts with two sponsored events in Hawaii, will move to Southern California on Jan. 18-24 for the Hope, followed by the event in La Jolla at Torrey Pines. That used to be sponsored by Buick, which also departed via the bankruptcy courts. That means that two of the first four tournaments on the tour are without a title sponsor.

The fifth event is at Riviera, where there is a sponsor, Northern Trust, a financial institution/sponsor that also needs to be mindful of the current climate. Last year, Northern Trust, which also was given bailout money despite saying it didn't need it, threw several high-profile parties around its Riviera event and was the opposite of the shrinking violet sponsor Chrysler had been at the Hope. Northern Trust missed the memo that said: do not wine and dine when you have taxpayers' money in your wallet.

Speculation is that there could be as many as a dozen PGA events running without title sponsors this year. The exact number is tough because the PGA is both tight-lipped and out there now, beating the bushes to fill some of those voids. The Hope was low key about Chrysler's departure, until Monday, because that's what the PGA Tour wanted.

Add this up and the storm ahead is obvious. Then, toss in the Woods situation, and you have the makings of a tsunami.

Perez addressed the current financial status of the tour by stating the obvious.

"We are losing sponsors, and we need more players to get involved," he said. "We need the top players to play more."

He said he was going to play the first seven events of the season.

"I'd like to see some guys start in January, not in March," he said.

That would help, and much of that burden may fall on Phil Mickelson, the player who moves the needle on the tour popularity meter best after Woods.

But right now, Woods is the tour, plain and simple. What isn't plain and simple is whether he will continue to be.

Monday, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll was released that provides a window on Woods' popularity slide.

Its June 2000 poll on Woods listed his public perception as follows: favorable, 88%; unfavorable, 5%; never-heard-of, 2%; no opinion, 5%. It took the same poll last week. His ratings were favorable, 60%; unfavorable, 25%; never-heard-of, 1% and no opinion, 13%.

Numbers don't always tell an accurate story. These seem to.

During the Bob Hope news conference, Foster said, rather proudly, that his committee had been socking away money so it could go on "in case of a cataclysmic event." He talked about fear of something like an earthquake and even mentioned the proximity to the San Andreas fault.

In the end, he said, the earth shaking was financial, not literal.

Golf, obviously, was already dealing with that, bracing for its impact.

And then, on Thanksgiving weekend, the other shoe, the one with the Nike swoosh, dropped.

For awhile, expect narrow fairways, deep rough and bumpy greens.

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