Attracting golfers becoming big business

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:09 AM ET

As long as there has been a PGA Tour, there have been players, agents, sponsors and tournament directors eager to push the rules envelope, trying to get an edge.

With only so many star players available on a weekly basis, competition between tournaments for quality fields is intense. It's a cut-throat business.

The lengths that sponsors and agents will go to get the biggest bang was particularly evident this past weekend when the Ford Championship attracted 11 of the top 12 players in the world. The lone holdout was Ernie Els, who earned a seven-figure appearance fee as well as the first-prize cheque in Dubai.

Ford offered cold, hard cash to the top players to show up for a Monday pro-am, with the understanding they would stick around for the tournament.

While this flirts with the PGA Tour's rule against players accepting appearance fees for any of its tournaments, it does not contravene it. The Ford Monday pro-am -- and presumably its hefty payday -- were approved by the Tour.

With the door on appearance fees apparently open a crack, International Management Group has quickly wedged its way into the game by sending tournament directors a letter offering to partner with the local group on an exclusive Monday pro-am that will include five high-end players.

"These professionals will look favorably upon staying for the tournament, which would enhance the strength of field," says the letter, a copy of which found its way into the hands of Golf World, a weekly magazine.

IMG has divided players up into two tiers. As an example, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, John Daly and Davis Love comprise the top tier, at a price of $100,000 to $200,000 US.

A dozen players are on the B list, including Fred Couples, Mike Weir, Stuart Appleby, KJ Choi and, for some unfathomable reason, David Duval. Those players are offered at $50,000-$100,000.

The Tour is not happy about this development but may be powerless to stop it. Many of its tournaments are running close to the line from a financial standpoint. If the John Deere Classic or the Greater Milwaukee Open or, for that matter, the Bell Canadian Open, is going to have to pony up another $1 million in player guarantees in addition to the $4 million or $5 million in purse money, it's going to create some hardships.

The North American economy is clicking along nicely right now, but at the first sign of a downturn, sports promotional dollars are among the first to go. The PGA Tour knows that first hand, having experienced it in the early years of the new millennium.

As we said at the start, these attempts to make an end-run around the rules are not new developments. Down through the years, the sponsors of the Canadian Open used to run a Monday event for as many as 15 players as a corporate outing at a course nearby the Open venue. The players got a modest fee and the tournament was able to put a decent field together.

But the prices were nowhere near the amounts being asked by IMG and its clients, or the amounts paid by Ford last week.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

It will be very interesting to see how the PGA Tour deals with this latest challenge because it's a double-edged sword. Commissioner Tim Finchem is trying to nail down a new TV contract to replace the $900-million deal currently in place.

Do you think he was not doing cartwheels last Sunday, with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson duelling down the stretch, and Vijay Singh charging up the board to mount a challenge? It was some of the best TV drama golf has seen in a while. At that moment, do you think Finchem was ticked off that Woods and most everybody else on the top-10 list had mysteriously decided to enter at Doral because of the up-front money?

The danger, of course is that the big-money tournaments, flush with cash, will bury the second-tier events. In an era when most of the very best players only play 20-25 events, it's going to be harder and harder to compete to get some names for the marquee, if many of them are making commitments wherever the big bucks can be found.

If it sounds a little like baseball, you're not far off. The Yankees and their free-spending ways are the engine that drives baseball's turbines. Golf might be heading in that direction.


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