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Not Glad Tidings
News from the USPGA Tour office that some tournaments are to be shed next year has simply exposed the nagging concern that many have voiced about the long-term future of golf.

Sponsorship of tournaments, we are told, is drying up as US corporate business goes through some belt tightening as the national economy slips through a little turbulence. Surely someone in the US Tour has contrasted and compared the situation with other US pro-sports and concluded that this simply does not wash and that there must be other explanations for the early symptoms of a potentially serious malady in golf.

In times of drought wells certainly tend to run dry. But wells also run dry when the bucket is dipped once too often or when the bucket simply gets too big for the well.

There is an economic recession in America, although looking at the glistening facades of corporate business headquarters and the level of sponsorship at tournaments on lush courses with palatial facilities; you would never guess it.

What we read of Tiger Woods' (pictured) contracts and of the prize money on offer at even second-class tournaments, one would assume that golf has never been more lucrative or successful. One would, however, be wrong. The suits behind the scenes are now having to work their butts off to maintain the spin while struggling to generate interest in sponsoring even long-standing well-established events. At least five, and probably up to a dozen Tour featured events will not take place next year - almost a quarter of all Tour events are at risk.

As things stand in the US business press it looks like we have seen the last of the WorldCom Classic, the Buick Challenge, the Greater Hartford Open, the Genuity Championship, the Michelob Challenge and a host of others that keep the rabbits nibbling, and more important breeding all season.

Spokespersons for the US Tour are being up beat about the whole situation, but it is now some weeks since Curtis Strange, this year's Ryder Cup Captain went public with his concerns. Strange simply asked why other sponsored sports are not suffering recession effects to the same extent as golf? Arnold Palmer, who has been around a bit and long enough to have seen the signs has been calling for retrenchment for some time.

'Maybe we have to take a step backwards, slow the level of purse increases, stay idle. Any business has to take a look and see what motor is running. The Senior Tour had to, perhaps the PGA should do it too', Arnie said.

It is astonishing that the suits representing the Tour have not thought about the consequences of events like the so-called NEC World Championship Series (whatever that means). These $5 million behemoth events are a real threat to 'regular' Tour events. They not only soak up sponsorship money but they also enable the 'stars' to pick and chose events - and, sadly, it is the 'stars' alone who attract the public, generate TV ratings and therefore sponsorship.

Win one of the $1 million pots on offer, or simply come in the top-10 of one or two such events and you can stay home for the rest of the year.

Tiger-mania over the past four years is really only responsible for igniting the bomb. It is probably true to say that Tiger, with the help of Nike, has taken the game from an over 40's to a 10-and-over spectator sport. But Tiger's popularity is such that it is he and not the sport that the teenyboppers are tuning into. Thus events that Tiger plays in will attract sponsorship whilst others, not associated with Nike and Disney, will not.

The Tour may yet have to come to some contractual agreement with Nike and Disney, to whom the Tiger is contracted, to make him play in more of its events.

All of the responsibility cannot, however, be placed upon Tiger and his contractors. The Tour itself, and particularly the Faustian contract it has with the TV companies, must also share the responsibility for punters turning off their sets and consequently sponsors closing their cheque books. This was exemplified in the coverage of last week's European Tour event in Crans-sur-Sierre.

First, the course at Crans is crap, as Ernie Els was quick to point out and as anyone who has ever played it will quickly concur. Faldo flattered it when he said that the greens were like cup cakes: Ballesteros dignified it by allowing it to be re-named in his honour.

Second, the event is being played there because it is where it is and that is where the sponsors want it. It has nothing to do with its golfing challenge. As the Sky TV commentator slobbered over the fact that Crans has some of the most expensive shops in the world and confided in us that he had just bought a watch in one such emporium, he did the best job of the week in describing the whole set-up of the Tour.

The fact that he subsequently went on to liken Crans to St Andrews summed up perfectly the reason why the majority are tuning out of golf TV viewing. It is not only astonishing but it is also galling that the public is asked to pay for such drivel and that the Tour is prepared to contract the sale of its product through such interface.

TV may have played a major role in popularising golf but I fear that it may be playing the major part in its downfall.

©    9 - SEPTEMBER 2002

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