Els & PGA Tour debate may spark problems
The PGA Tour is taking a risk in trying to force Ernie Els to play more in the United States, but the motivation in that bid has some of its roots in South Florida.
When Els decided in 2003 not to defend his title at the Ford Championship at Doral, it couldn't have thrilled PGA Tour officials. They delivered the Ford Motor Co. as the new title sponsor to the South Florida Golf Foundation that year. They did so in the wake of that glorious duel Els won against Tiger Woods on the Blue Monster in 2002, the final year Genuity was title sponsor. With Ford newly aboard at Doral and optimism high in 2003, Els took the lucrative guaranteed appearance fee offered by the Dubai Desert Classic and did not defend his title in Miami.
Woods chose Dubai's money that year, too, but terrorist concerns kept him from going. Still, he didn't play Doral.
Els took the money to play Dubai again this year.
South Florida is still eagerly waiting for Els to return, but the risk the PGA Tour is taking doesn't assure we'll see any more of him. In fact, if the tour doesn't smooth over this rift, there's a possibility the United States will be seeing a lot less of him now.
Els had complained at the World Match Play in England that the PGA Tour sent him a letter trying to force him to play at least 20 events in the States next year instead of the usual minimum 15.
According to PGA Tour rules, a full member playing 15 PGA Tour events gets three releases for tournaments played opposite its events. A golfer must play an additional five PGA Tour events for each subsequent release.
Els will end up playing 16 PGA Tour events this year, but the Tour has permitted him to play in nine overseas tournaments opposite PGA Tour events.
"I think they need to understand the golf world has changed over the years," Els told European media. "There's a world outside America, and I'm part of it. Don't start putting a padlock around me, because that's not going to work."
The risk the PGA Tour takes is that a frustrated Els will give up his full membership status, play just seven PGA Tour events on sponsor exemptions next year, play the three major championships over here and two or three World Golf Championship events and then play more overseas.
Instead of more PGA Tour events, Els could play four or five fewer in the United States.
This leaves local foundations running PGA Tour events wondering what to make of the Tour's strong stand.
"We really want Ernie to play at Doral, and we have a good feeling about 2005," said Eddie Carbone, the Ford Championship at Doral's new executive director.
"But we really have no comment on the letter the PGA Tour sent to Ernie. I haven't seen it, and that's between Ernie and the PGA Tour."
It has left fans scratching their heads as to why the PGA Tour would take on the lovable Els.
But here in South Florida, there is some perspective. While it may not justify the risk the PGA Tour is taking, what happened here explains what is likely part of the Tour's motivation.
The loss of stars overseas has to frustrate title sponsors like Ford that pay out millions in prize money. PGA Tour pros are playing for more than $230 million in purses over here thanks to these title sponsors, a figure that dwarfs any other tour.
While the PGA Tour has coaxed tournaments to more than triple their payouts over eight years, it hasn't guaranteed them more star power because of it.
PGA Tour pros are not playing more events. Phil Mickelson will play 22 this year, same as last year, one or two fewer than he averaged for 1997-2002.
Tiger Woods will play 17, down from his usual 19, thanks to his recent marriage. John Daly will play 21, down two from his average the three previous seasons. Davis Love III will play 24, about what he has averaged the past five years.
With the PGA Tour trying to secure renewals from title sponsors like Ford, with TV negotiations opening again next year, the Tour is challenged to make sure TV and sponsors are getting their money's worth.
The PGA Tour gravy train may not be drying up, but with TV ratings down, purses aren't going to keep skyrocketing at the amazing rate we've seen the last eight years.
Title sponsors, the foundation of the Tour, are happiest when they see stars teeing up.
And here's the thing, the PGA Tour's conflicting events policy provides Commissioner Tim Finchem great discretion in granting or denying releases.
"The commissioner may deny any particular release request if he determines that such a release would cause PGA Tour to be in violation of a contractual commitment to a tournament sponsor or would otherwise significantly and unreasonably harm PGA Tour and such sponsors," the policy states.
"Also, the commissioner shall be entitled, but not obligated, to grant additional releases when he determines that to do so would not unreasonably harm PGA Tour or the sponsor involved."
The PGA Tour's granting of releases to Dubai has unquestionably hurt the Ford Championship.
Els is reportedly working up an answer for the PGA Tour that could affect South Florida.
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