Drive to Attract Top Stars Still a Hot Topic
But what seems to count more than who wins is who plays.
Maybe that's why the document generating the biggest buzz these days is a letter from IMG that smacks of appearance money and projects a sense of desperation among PGA Tour events to attract a good field.
The Bay Hill Invitational has no such problems.
It has a beloved tournament host in Arnold Palmer, a favorable spot on the schedule with The Players Championship and Masters around the corner, and Tiger Woods lives just down the street.
Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are not only playing in the same tournament, they'll be in the same group the first two rounds at Bay Hill.
Not every PGA Tour event is so fortunate.
That's one reason IMG sent a proposal to various sponsors aimed at beefing up the field.
The proposal includes a menu of players and their price range for a Monday outing the week of the tournament. There was no guarantee they would stick around for the tournament because that would constitute an appearance fee, which is not allowed on the PGA Tour. Instead, there was a pledge they would 'look favorably upon staying.'
It worked for the Ford Championship at Doral two weeks ago. It paid a reported $600,000 for the foursome of Goosen, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington to play golf with top customers. Sure enough, all found it in their best interests to tee it up three days later on the Blue Monster.
The push for a strong field is nothing new. Tournaments long have clamored for the big names of the era, whether it was Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Fred Couples or Woods.
'Unfortunately, it's show business,' said Larry Thiel, tournament director at the International. 'We're driven by the marquee value of the players in the field.'
Appearance money in disguise is nothing new, either.
Some 20 years ago, sponsors used to meet with IMG to figure out which players would be invited to a corporate outing in Canada called the 'Chairman's Days.' Lo and behold, these players inevitably stuck around for the Canadian Open. And just last year, the 84 Lumber Classic offered six first-class seats on a charter to the World Golf Championship in Ireland for those who played in its tournament. The value was estimated at close to $50,000.
That must have looked like chump change compared to the menu IMG served up.
The rate was between $100,000 and $200,000 for players like Singh, Garcia, Goosen and Ernie Els. The price range was between $50,000 and $100,000 for the likes of David Duval, Mike Weir, Fred Couples and Jim Furyk.
But conspicuously missing was the one guy who sells tickets and spikes TV ratings.
Why wasn't he on the menu?
'Don't even go there,' Woods said Tuesday, sensing no way out of the impending question.
While Ford paid $600,000 for its star foursome, that money wouldn't even get Woods for nine holes. Woods commands about $3 million to play overseas, where appearance money is allowed. Industry insiders say he would get at least $1 million for a one-day corporate outing like the one at Doral.
That Woods can get that much money raises questions about what constitutes a strong field. It's hard to imagine the 'Ford Foursome' generated ticket sales. All they did was give the tournament strength in numbers.
Give tournament directors this choice: Only one of the top 10 in the world with that one being Woods, or eight of the top 10 without Woods?
Steve Wilmot of the MCI Heritage opted for eight out of 10, only because Harbourtown can't accommodate many more fans than it already gets. Thiel also would prefer eight of 10 at the International, but that's the purist in him.
The realistic side tells him differently.
'In this world today of satisfying sponsors and ad agencies, and with the return on investments that only can be measured by ratings, that in itself says to everybody, 'You better get Tiger in your field if you want to end up having ratings that are meaningful,'' Thiel said.
'Golf is all about Tiger. He's the engine that is driving television, and television is the engine that drives the tour.'
Woods doesn't find fault with Ford or any other tournament willing to shell out money for a good field, especially during his campaign for a shorter season.
'There are 48 events, and with the economy the way it is right now, the players aren't going to be playing 38 events,' Woods said. 'So it's tough to get all of the guys. And that's one way of getting the guys. You've seen what they did up in Nemacolin (84 Lumber Classic), down at Doral. They do perks, and that's one way of getting around it to make sure you get a quality field.'
The issue will be sorted out this weekend when tournament sponsors have their annual meeting at PGA Tour headquarters. Maybe then, the focus can return to some phenomenal golf being played this year, even at the tournaments that don't have the strongest fields.
Pepperell among co-leaders early in Qatar
DOHA, Qatar – Eddie Pepperell, Gregory Havret, and Aaron Rai made the most of calm early morning conditions at Doha Golf Club to set the pace in the opening round of the Qatar Masters at 7-under-par 65 on Thursday.
Havret went bogey free, Pepperell made one bogey and eight birdies, while fellow English golfer Rai eagled his last hole to add to five birdies.
One shot behind the leaders were four players, including former Ryder Cup player Edoardo Molinari of Italy and former champion Alvaro Quiros of Spain.
Defending champion Jeunghun Wang of South Korea started with a 68, and Race to Dubai leader Shubhankar Sharma of India shot 69 despite a double bogey on the 15th hole.
Pepperell, who is fast gaining a reputation on the European Tour for his irreverent tweets and meaningful blogs, showed his clubs can also do an equal amount of talking after missing cuts in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Malaysia.
Pepperell birdied Nos. 10, 11, 14, 16 and 18 with a single blemish on 13 after starting on the back nine. He made three more birdies on his back nine.
He was joined on top of the leaderboard by Havret, who made five birdies in six holes from the sixth, and Rai, who eagled the last.
''I surprised myself, really,'' said Pepperell, who finished third in Portugal and Netherlands last year.
''I've made some changes this week with personnel, so I've been working on a couple of new things and I surprised myself out there with how well I managed to trust it.
''I hit some quality tee shots, that's the area I feel that I've been struggling with a bit lately. We had a good time.
''It's definitely a bigger picture for me this week than tomorrow and indeed the weekend. I'm not overly-fussed about my early season form.”
Molinari, a three-time champion on the tour including last year in Morocco, started with eight straight pars, and then made seven birdies in his last 10 holes, including a chip-in for birdie on the last.
''I hit every green apart from the last one. I hit a lot of fairways, I had a lot of chances for birdie,'' said Edoardo, the older brother of Francesco.
''Last week in Oman, I had a decent week, I had a bad first round and then three very good rounds. It's been the case for the last few weeks so my focus this week was to try and get a good start.''
Oliver Fisher of England was the best among the afternoon groups with a 6-under 66, joining Molinari, Quiros and Germany's Marcel Schneider in a tie for fourth.
Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic
Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
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Honda Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats
The PGA Tour heads back east to kick off the Florida Swing at PGA National. Here are the key stats and information for the Honda Classic. Click here for full-field tee times.
How to watch:
Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream
Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream
Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET
Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET
Purse: $6.6 million ($1,188,000 to the winner)
Course: PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (par-70; 7,140 yards)
Defending champion: Rickie Fowler (-12) won by four, picking off his fourth PGA Tour victory.
Notables in the field:
• Making his fourth start at the Honda Classic and his first since withdrawing with back spasms in 2014.
• Shot a Sunday 62 in a T-2 finish in 2012, marking his lowest career final-round score on the PGA Tour.
• Coming off a missed cut at last week's Genesis Open, his 17th in his Tour career.
• The defending champion owns the lowest score to par and has recorded the most birdies and eagles in this event since 2012.
• Fowler's last start was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he failed to close a 54-hole lead. Fowler is 1-for-6 with 54-hole leads in his Tour career, with his only successful close coming at last year's Honda.
• On Tour this year, Fowler is first in scrambling from the fringe, second in total scrambling and third in strokes gained around the green.
• It's been feast or famine for McIlroy at the Honda. He won in 2012, withdrew with a toothache in 2013, finished T-2 in 2014 and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016.
• McIlroy ascended to world No. 1 with his victory at PGA National in 2012, becoming the second youngest player at 22 years old to top the OWGR, behind only Woods. McIlroy was later edged by a slightly younger 22-year-old Jordan Spieth.
• Since the beginning of 2010, only Dustin Johnson (15) has more PGA Tour victories than McIlroy (13).
Lexi, J. Korda part of four-way tie in Thailand
CHONBURI, Thailand – Three-time tour winner Minjee Lee of Australia finished with a superb eagle putt to be among the four leaders after Day 1 of the LPGA Thailand at Siam Country Club on Thursday.
Lee sank a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole to card a 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead with 2016 champion Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, and local hope Moriya Jutanugarn.
''I just hit the collar. I didn't know if I was going to have enough. Such a big break there. I'm glad it caught the hole,'' Lee said.
''It's a second-shot golf course. Your approaches are really important, and obviously being in the right spots with the undulation. And if you have a hot putter that's going to help.''
Lee won the Vic Open near Melbourne this month and opened her 2018 LPGA tour account last week at the Women's Australian Open, finishing fifth.
Thompson, who won this event in 2016 by six shots with a 20-under total and tied for fourth last year, started her latest round in style with an eagle followed by a birdie only to bogey the third hole. She carded four more birdies.
''It definitely helps to get that kind of start, but I was just trying to keep that momentum and not get ahead of myself,'' Thompson said.
Her compatriot Korda had a roller-coaster round which featured eagles on the first and 17th holes, five birdies, a double bogey on the sixth, and two bogeys.
Jutanugarn was the only player among the four to end the day without a bogey.
''I had a good start today, it was better than I expected,'' said Jutanugarn, who was seventh here last year.
She's trying to become the first Thai winner of the tournament.
Two-time champion Amy Yang and world No. 2 Sung Hyun Park were among six players at 5 under.