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America's golfing wellbeing depending on Tiger

America's PGA Tour today will conclude the first full-field tournament of 2003, the Sony Open in Hawaii. It is the second event of the season in which the tour - worth $225m this year - missed their biggest marketing tool.

Laid up by a knee problem for which surgery was needed last month, Tiger Woods is resting at home in Orlando as the best of the rest are 5,000 miles to the west. The world No1 probably will not play competitively until the middle of next month in San Diego, which makes a big difference to those concerned with the tour’s financial wellbeing.

Last year, tournaments in which Woods participated drew an average television rating of 2.4, or about 2.5 million American households. When Woods did play, numbers rose by 45.8%, and when he was in contention come Sunday afternoon, they went up a further 16.7%. Tiger sells.

It could be argued that, were it not for the presence of perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, the PGA Tour, for all the apparent opulence, would be facing an uncertain future in a shaky economic climate. Even with Tiger around, times are decidedly harder than over the past decade, a time of unprecedented growth: since 1993, purses have risen by 272%.

The 2003 schedule is one tournament down on last year, the calendar was not completed until November, four months later than normal, and 11 events will be lacking title sponsors. The simple reason: lack of money.

To justify the $1bn contract that he signed with television networks almost two years ago, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is asking prospective sponsors to pay more than ever for the privilege of show-casing squeaky-clean golfers, such as Phil Mickelson and David Toms. Woods aside, that image is golf’s biggest promotional asset. Compared with drug- and controversy-ridden sports like basketball, baseball and American football, golfers represent an advertiser’s dream.

Finchem, in fact, has done a terrific job for his members. "The overall strength of the product is driven by the image of the players, and the increasing view by companies that they want to be associated with a sport that gives back," he said. Giving back means, for example, that the PGA Tour, Senior Tour and events generated almost $68m for charities in 2001.

Elsewhere, times are even tougher. The likes of the newly-packaged Champions Tour and the LPGA Tour face decidedly-dodgy futures: both have lost tournaments from last year.

Seniors events have lost much of their glamour. With the likes of Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player too old to contend for meaningless titles, viewers are left with Hale Irwin, Bruce Fleisher and Tom Kite. Is it any wonder that an average of 175,000 American TVs were tuned into the veterans last year on CNBC, a relatively obscure cable channel? Nostalgia is no match for Tiger.

Prospects for the women look even bleaker. Not only are the best players foreigners in an American-dominated market, but the leading three - Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, Australian Karrie Webb and Korea’s Se Ri Pak - are almost devoid of charisma. When one says anything interesting to the media, it will be a first.

In contrast, prospects for the European Tour are bright, albeit with an asterisk. For one thing, some of the ‘accounting practices’ employed by the tour’s media department are questionable. Though only the elite Europeans compete in the American majors and World Golf Championship events, money won counts towards the Order of Merit. Hardly fair on the rank and file.

Still, it cannot be denied that executive director Ken Schofield and his staff are sharp operators in the sponsorship field, and the tour schedule looks remarkably robust.

On an even happier note, Ernie Els’ record-breaking performance in winning the Mercedes event - an unbelievable 31-under par in triumphing by eight strokes - also augurs well. Not only does the big South African’s stunning form suggest that we may have someone who can take Tiger on more than occasionally; such scoring hints at what might be an unprecedented year for the shattering of records.

Expunging notable names and numbers from the annals of the game is not everyone’s cup of char, but then watching golf like that played by Els a week ago is far from boring. It may even be good enough to persuade a few CEOs to dip into company coffers, Tiger or no Tiger. Tim Finchem certainly hopes so


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