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Australian PGA Tour in trouble

Craig Parry's gripping victory in the Heineken Classic last weekend on the fourth sudden-death extra hole provided some welcome respite for the ailing Australasian golf tour.

Parry's tense win exemplified all the good things in golf, yet his triumph camouflaged a troubled sport that has been weakened by years of undermining by the omnipotent US PGA Tour.

Australia, the home of world-class golfers Peter Thomson, David Graham, and Greg Norman, is in poor shape. Tournaments and sponsors have dwindled as big US names shun the lesser purses for the five million USD offered weekly on its burgeoning PGA tour.

There is a new doubt over the future of the European Tour co-sanctioned Heineken Classic with the Dutch brewer ending its sponsorship after this year's tournament.

That would leave just the Australian Open, Australian PGA and the Australian Masters as the flag-bearing events in this country.

Yet while the local tour is waning Australian golfers are flourishing internationally. There are 22 Australians plying their trade on the US Tour, with another 14 in Europe and some more in Asia.

Australian golf broadcaster Channel 7 has forecast turbulent times ahead for the local game amid consistently poor television ratings in this sports-mad nation.

Ian Johnson, managing director of Channel 7 in Melbourne, said recently that while current contracts would be honoured - including covering the Australian Open and the Australian Masters until 2008 - it was not certain they would be renewed.

Domestic television audiences have plummeted by almost 500,000 since 1997 and there are fears that tournaments might disappear altogether from free-to-air television.

Even Australia's top-ranked golfer Adam Scott admits he gets bored watching golf on television and says something needs to be done to improve ratings figures.

"I know where they're coming from, I'm bored watching golf on television, no question about it," Scott said.

The centenary Australian Open last November is a case in point. It started out with grand plans of inviting past winners to come back and play in the tournament, once described by Jack Nicklaus as the game's fifth major.

Yet the celebrations fell flat. Nicklaus, who won the title six times and Gary Player seven, along with Tom Watson and Greg Norman didn't make the trip along with none of the world's top-17 players.

One of the rare exceptions to take up the offer was 1966 champion Arnold Palmer, who at age 75 flew to Australia in his private jet just after having had a hernia operation to compete in a nine-hole pro-am as part of the celebrations.

The intractable problem that has eroded Australia's once-vibrant tournament schedule is money. Another is its timing with the November-December period scheduled in the northern hemisphere's end-of-season break.

Local promoters cannot afford to pay massive appearance fees for the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons of this world.

Greg Norman, who turns 50 on Thursday after missing the cut at the Heineken Classic, says it's incumbent on US PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to protect golf globally.

"I think the fault lies with the head of the PGA Tour," Norman said.

"Because of the suction effect all the top players from South Africa, Japan and Australia have gone to the United States.

"That is what Finchem's role has been and he's done a great job, but you've got the responsibility of protecting golf on a global basis and making sure that the respected tours, like the Australasian and South African, have some support from the powerhouse that is the United States PGA Tour.

"I think it is incumbent on them to look at that responsibility deep and hard to figure out how they can support these events down here."

 

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