The Ford Championship at Doral begins on Thursday with one of the strongest fields on the PGA Tour this year. The only player missing from the top 12 in the world ranking is No. 3 Ernie Els, who has played the Dubai Desert Classic every year since winning Doral in 2002.
A small part of the tournament began Monday.
Across town at Indian Creek Country Club, Ford Motor Co. had a corporate outing involving Vijay Singh (No. 1), Retief Goosen (No. 5), Sergio Garcia (No. 6) and Padraig Harrington (No. 8).
And they didn't show up out of the goodness of their heart. The Sun-Sentinel cited a tournament source as saying the fee was as high as $150,000.
'It's a corporate outing early in the tournament week,' said Duke Butler, vice president of tournament business affairs at the PGA Tour. 'It's not unlike a number of things that have gone on for years. None of those stipulate that you must play in the tournament.'
Ford did not need to invite Phil Mickelson (No. 4) to the outing, because it already has an endorsement deal with the Masters champion. Lefty played with select Ford dealers on a different golf course Tuesday.
What gives the Doral field some serious pop is Tiger Woods, the top draw anywhere in the world. Woods wasn't included in the outing for obvious reasons - he is sponsored by Buick, and $150,000 is chump change for a guy who commands $3 million when he goes overseas.
Still, the corporate day with four players - all of them IMG clients - has become such an issue that it will be on the agenda when tournament sponsors gather for their annual meeting later this month at The Players Championship.
'Those players already told us last year they were going to play Doral,' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. 'Perception-wise, I understand the concern. We have to deal with the perception.'
In some respects, it is simply smart business, and Ford is not alone.
Ford became title sponsor at Doral about the time it signed up Mickelson to wear its logo on his shirt and make 'What will Phil do next' commercials. That all but assures Lefty will be at Doral every year, although he skipped the first year when his wife was pregnant with their third child.
That's no different than the deal between Buick and Woods.
Woods is not contractually obligated to play any of the four Buick tournaments, although he has played at least two of them each year since he became part of the Buick golf team.
And don't forget 84 Lumber.
The Pennsylvania company signed an endorsement deal with Singh and John Daly, another big draw. And speaking of appearance money, 84 Lumber attracted a stronger-than-usual field last year by offering every eligible player at its tournament six first-class seats on a charter to Ireland for the World Golf Championship.
Jim Furyk, a past champion at Doral, did not get an invitation to the Ford outing. He wasn't offended.
And he is not worried where these 'outings' might lead - at least not yet.
'It's not like it's a new thing on tour. It's just more prominent, maybe more flashier,' Furyk said. 'Is it good or bad? I don't know. I guess it would be bad if it reflects on the purse.'
The suggestion was that tournaments might reduce their purses to pay prominent players for an outing, giving them guaranteed money. But Furyk quickly noted that the Doral purse is $5.5 million, up $500,000 from last year, and that Ford has gone above and beyond to inject life into the tournament.
Still, it raises a couple of questions.
If this corporate outing was simply appearance money in disguise, will this lead to competition among tournaments?
'They need to watch this,' said Kym Hougham, tournament director of the Wachovia Championship. 'You don't want a case where the rich gets richer.'
Hougham has no worries now. Quail Hollow is good enough to hold a major, and that alone is enough to attract players to the Wachovia Championship. Players get a Mercedes for a courtesy car, and the biggest perk of all is having only two amateurs in the pro-am.
But he can relate. Hougham used to be tournament director of the John Deere Classic, which is held the week before the British Open. His last year there, he had only one player among the top 50 at his tournament. He doesn't remember who it was.
'It's important for a title sponsor to feel he has a world-class field,' Hougham said.
But that leads to another question.
Exactly what is a strong field?
Doral has 11 of the top 12 in the world ranking, but having Woods turned a great field into a spectacular one. In fact, one could argue that Torrey Pines had a stronger field because it had Singh, Woods, Mickelson and Els, four of the biggest names on tour.
Harrington, Garcia, Stewart Cink and David Toms only offer strength in numbers.
No one gives a tournament buzz like Woods.
'Tiger is the key,' Hougham said. 'If everyone is being honest about this, tournament directors would be happy with eight out of the top 10. But having Tiger legitimizes the perception people have of the field.'
Ford didn't pay a dime to get him.
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