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PGA Tour season becoming never ending

Imagine the NFL building its season to a Super Bowl climax, then tacking on two months of scrimmages.

That's what the PGA Tour does.

Imagine Major League Baseball building to a World Series crescendo followed by two months of split-squad exhibition games.

That's what the PGA Tour does.

Imagine the NBA wrapping up the Finals in June, then "treating" fans to a summer of games that don't count.

That's what the PGA Tour does year after year after year, until the seasons blur from one to another.

The 2004 season officially ends on Nov. 7 with the final round of the Tour Championship, which really is no such thing. Come Jan. 6, this season's tournament winners will tee off the 2005 season at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua. If you're counting — and why would you? — that's 48 official events this year and 48 next year. And that's not even counting the menagerie of silly season events in November and December.

Make no mistake: That kind of volume speaks volumes about the tour's popularity and marketability. But how much of a good thing is too much?

The sport's top attraction, Tiger Woods, has never played in more than 21 tour events in a season. That means more than half the tournaments go into each year knowing they have about as much of a chance of landing Woods as the average citizen does of walking into a voting booth without being overcome with an urge to hold his or her nose.

Phil Mickelson has played in 20 tour events this year, Ernie Els in 15. Keep in mind, the four major championships, three World Golf Championship events and the Mercedes and Tour Championships account for nine almost automatic schedule commitments for elite players. The ironman of the star golfers, top-ranked Vijay Singh, will play 29 events by season's end. That leaves 19 events trying to explain how they can't land the man who seemingly will play anywhere, any time.

"The tour's a victim of its own success," said Davis Love III, who has played in 22 events. "A lot like NASCAR. If you said, 'Well, I'm just going to play the $4.5 million and $5 million tournaments,' you've got a full year. There are a lot more really good tournaments, and now every one of them is on TV. There are too many, and it's hard to say no. That's the hardest thing — who you say no to."

Clearly, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has gotten an earful from tournament directors about the difficulty of landing marquee players. Els recently received a letter — worded too strongly to his liking — from tour headquarters imploring him to give up his globetrotting ways. He has played 15 events on both sides of the Atlantic. The tour requires a minimum of 15 appearances for a player to maintain full standing. Els will have 17 starts by season's end. Finchem, Els said, is pressing him to play at least 20 times in America and forsake playing abroad.

"I think they need to understand that I think the golfing world has changed through the years," said Els, a South Africa native who considers England his primary residence. "There's a world outside of America, and I'm part of it. Don't start putting a padlock around me, because that's not going to work."

At this time of year, a squabble between Els and the commissioner will have to pass for intrigue on the tour.

Look, every sports season has gotten longer than a night at the opera. Remember when the NFL determined its champion by the first week of January, the NBA wrapped up the playoffs in April, and the last dog-pile celebration of the baseball season came by mid-October?

The difference with golf is, the start and finish of the season generate about as much buzz as a podiatrists' convention coming to town. The season begins sleepily, because the heart can't grow fonder if there isn't any absence. The season ends sluggishly, nearly three months after the last major championship.

Singh — like his predecessor at the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, Woods — has been too good for the tour's good this year. With eight victories, Singh has made the outcome of the Player of the Year race about as much in doubt as the verdict in a Perry Mason case. If Singh can win again in the next two weeks, then maybe, just maybe, the Tour Championship will turn into something besides one last chance for the richest players to get even richer. The last player to have a double-digit victory total in one season was Sam Snead. In 1950.

The Tour Championship sure sounded like a great idea when it began in 1987. Take the top 30 players on the money list. Put them in one place at the end of the year. Let the elite players make one last case for being Player of the Year.

The trouble is, the POY is almost invariably an open-and-shut case by then. Two Tour Championship winners — Tom Lehman in 1996, Woods in 1999 — won the award. Woods had already sealed the deal with the seven 1999 victories that preceded the season finale at Champions Golf Club. To make matters on the course even more meaningless, that was the week Payne Stewart died.

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