Tour treading water worried about economy
It featured one of the best golf courses in Quail Hollow, which attracted Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and a host of other world-class players. The gallery was among the largest on Tour. Tournament officials couldnt print tickets fast enough.
For now, its a good thing they didnt print any at all.
The tournament that seemed to have it all, suddenly had no title sponsor.
The staff came to work Sept. 29 only to learn that bidding was under way between Citigroup and Wells Fargo to acquire the banking operations of Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia, which earlier this year signed a contract extension with the PGA Tour through 2014.
On Friday, federal antitrust regulators cleared Wells Fargos $11.7 billion acquisition of Wachovia Corp., capping a weeklong battle for the bank.
Tickets were within five days of being printed when we stopped the presses, tournament director Kym Hougham said.
It was a troubling development for a sport that relies heavily on corporate support, with 11 title sponsors and three presenting sponsors coming from the financial services industry, each paying anywhere from $6 million to $12 million a year.
The Charlotte tournament expects to continue, with the contract assumed by Wells Fargo. In a similar case this year, Hewlett-Packard acquired Electronic Data Systems and took over title sponsorship of the Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas.
We know the tournament will happen, Hougham said. Well still sell out the tournament, but it may be later than normal.
Likewise, golf might be off the hook in the short term. All of its tournaments have sponsorship deals through 2010, with some of the deals through 2012 and others, like Wachovia, signed through 2014.
Its the long term that concerns PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
We have a lot of customers and sponsors in economic sectors that are impacted negatively by the volatility in the economy, Finchem said. Thus far, we have not suffered any major damage. But clearly, if the instability were to continue for a sustained period of time, we will have real challenges.
Some tournaments already are feeling the effects of an economic downturn in the second tier of sponsorships.
The 2009 season starts in Hawaii with the Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua, where tournament host Gary Planos said costs are up, revenue is flat and sponsorship sales have been weak. Then its off to Honolulu for the Sony Open, which already is feeling the pinch.
We had six to eight sponsors that went away abruptly, some who had been with us for years, tournament director Ray Stosik said. We thought they would continue, but the economy forced them to make drastic changes.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational at the end of March, which has MasterCard as a presenting sponsor through 2012, has three associate sponsors. One of them, which tournament director Scott Wellington declined to identify, had to pull out.
I firmly believe well come out of it, Wellington said. But well take a hit next year.
Then there are sports agents, who usually spend October and November trying to find new endorsement deals for their players or renewing the ones they have. In many cases, they are told to call back later.
This year feels a little like it did right after 9-11, said Rocky Hambric of Dallas-based Hambric Sports Management. Its not so much, Were not interested. Its more like, We dont really want to do anything right now. Deals weve been working on for six months that we thought wed be agreeing to in October, they want to see where the bottom is before they decide.
The future is even more muddled on the LPGA.
Two tournaments already were gone before the Wall Street meltdown ' the Fields Open in Hawaii and the Ginn Tribute in South Carolina, a sponsorship that leaned heavily on real estate. Ginn consolidated its two LPGA events to one outside Orlando, Fla.
SemGroup sponsored an event in Tulsa, Okla., but it filed for bankruptcy in the spring. Safeway, which sponsored tournaments in Phoenix and Portland, Ore., also consolidated and now has only the Portland event. The LPGA, which doesnt nearly have the financial strength of the PGA Tour, said it might have to run a Phoenix event with its own money.
About one-third of the LPGA sponsorship deals are up for renewal this year.
We are reasonably confident in next years schedule being similar to this years schedule in number of events and level of prize money, said Chris Higgs, senior vice president of tournament business affairs. Theres still a couple of things to be concluded.
Kapalua, the only resort to host the PGA Tour and LPGA, has no title sponsor its first year with the LPGA.
Its difficult right now, Planos, the tournament host, said. Its been difficult all year. We looked quite a bit, but the right partnership hasnt come about. Well sponsor it ourselves, showing the beauty of Kapalua. The best way of selling it is to show how well we run it.
Finchem said about 15 tournaments have sponsorship deals that expire next year. One of them is the Deutsche Bank Championship, one of the playoff events for the FedEx Cup. Even before the credit crisis, trouble was looming, and it was clear the tour caught a break with the structure of its contracts.
The good news is, the deals for four- to six-years are signed, said Seth Waugh, CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas. Im a little more optimistic that well get through this. But if the contracts were not signed, youd lose a lot of folks.
Finchem is equally optimistic that were going to dodge major bullets.
His tenure has been blessed by good timing. The first big TV contract was negotiated after 21-year-old Tiger Woods won the Masters. The second was finished in the summer of 2001, two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Purses continued to rise with the creation of the FedEx Cup, which pays a $35 million bonus pool each year.
For now, trouble is in an area not so obvious to the casual observer.
Were getting pecked by lots of little things, as we always are in a recession, Finchem said. If this thing goes all the way through 09, and we start losing sponsors, it might be different.
Turnover in sponsorship is nothing new on the PGA Tour. Five years ago, a dozen tournaments had different title sponsors. Neal Pilson, a TV consultant and former president of CBS Sports, once said the health of the tour is best defined by the waiting list of title sponsors.
Its a short list at best right now.
The Tour could not find a replacement sponsor for the tournament in Atlanta, which lost its spot on the spring schedule to the Valero Texas Open next year. Tampa Bay was on the verge of going away until Transitions Optical stepped in.
Through it all, golf was without its biggest star for all but about three months. Woods had surgery on his knee twice this year, the last one after winning the U.S. Open in June. Even Woods doesnt know when he can return in 2009.
Him not playing and the economy taking a downturn, its a punch in the gut, said Greg McLaughlin, who runs the AT&T National and the unofficial Chevron World Challenge, both hosted by Woods.
For now, the real victim could be charity.
PGA Tour events crossed the $1 billion mark two years ago in charitable giving, its hallmark. How much a tournament raises for local charities depends largely on the secondary tiers of sponsorship ' sky boxes, corporate packages, pro-ams.
When you look at it, the appearance that all these events have title sponsors is accurate, McLaughlin said. Look underneath the covers and find out about secondary sponsors.
The Shell Houston Open not only is starting its renewal contracts with such sponsors, but officials are still recovering from Hurricane Ike. It has solid title sponsorship, but tournament director Steve Timms said every tournaments biggest concern is corporate hospitality. In tough economic times, discretionary money is the first to go.
The psychology of this thing is that even if business is doing OK, you should go ahead and cut back, Timms said. Weve just completed our budget process. Well keep it even with 08 numbers. Well be pleased if we get that, and that may be aggressive.
Prize money comes primarily from title sponsorship and TV contracts. The only sting players might feel ' particularly those outside of the top 50 ' are personal endorsements. Hambric said he was thrilled to get Justin Leonards deal with Nike renewed in August.
But he worries about the long term, like everyone else.
If we went into something like a depression, sports marketing is not going to be the last thing to go, Hambric said. For a lot of companies, it might be the first thing to go ' and the last thing to come back.
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.
Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.
Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.
So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.
How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:
1. Stay healthy
So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.
Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.
Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.
2. Figure out his driver
Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.
That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.
In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.
Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”
That won’t be the case at Augusta.
3. Clean up his iron play
As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.
At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.
Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.
That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.
Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”
4. Get into contention somewhere
As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.
In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.
“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”
Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.
And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go.
“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”
Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.
Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA
Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.
The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.
According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.
Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.
Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.
Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.
“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.
Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.
Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”
With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.
Thomas was asked about that.
“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.
“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”
Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.
“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.
“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”
Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.
“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”
Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.
“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.
Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.
McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.
“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said. “That's what he said.”
The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.
The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.
“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”