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Schedule changes likely for PGA Tour

Commissioner Tim Finchem is tempted to leave the PGA Tour schedule the way it is.

The season starts in Hawaii in January, then follows the sun (except for the occasional rain delays) through the four major championships until it stops at the Tour Championship in November and everyone counts their money. The model has worked well in the 11 years Finchem has been commissioner.

Total prize money, $56 million in 1994, will surpass $250 million this year. Fifteen players already have won $2 million this year, and three of those guys haven't even won. TV ratings continue to spike when Tiger Woods is in contention, and his winning two majors this year certainly helped.

But the closer the tour gets to negotiating a new television contract, the more change looks inevitable.

"You want to grow," Finchem said in an interview last weekend at Firestone Country Club during the WGC-NEC Invitational, his first public comments about a new schedule since March. "To compete effectively -- even if you weren't going to grow, just to maintain your position -- you look at who you're competing with. And everyone you're competing with is changing to get better, sometimes dramatically."

The prize in this competition is a stronger audience, specifically the number of fans watching on TV.

The PGA Tour saw the NFL negotiate a new television deal, and NASCAR is next. NASCAR revamped its schedule last year to create "The Chase," which features the top 10 teams competing over the final 10 races of the year.

This is where U.S. golf likely is headed. Two sources who are privy to the discussions said last week that the tour is focused on a playoff race that would begin shortly after the PGA Championship and include four tournaments that lead to the Tour Championship.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their relationship with the tour, said two of four tournaments already have bought into the plan, one of those the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston.

Finchem declined to discuss details of any models the tour has considered.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson took the lead earlier this year in saying the schedule was too long, stretching from the first week in January to the first week in November.

For casual fans, television interest in golf doesn't start until Pebble Beach in February, and it begins to slide after the majors are completed in August.

PGA Tour golf might need something to inject some enthusiasm, especially late in the season.

"You need to challenge yourself every few years and say, 'Are we taking all the steps necessary to allow us to compete effectively?"' Finchem said. "It may develop that you say, 'You know what? There's no better way to do it, so let's just leave it alone.' It's certainly easier to do that. But I think it's been good to challenge what we're doing, and I think the likelihood is we'll make some changes."

Finchem has tried before to generate interest at the end of the year.

When the World Golf Championships began in 1999, the season ended with the American Express Championship. Played the first two years in Spain, it followed the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour, and the season-ending Volvo Masters on the European Tour. The idea was to create back-to-back weeks of big tournaments.

But it didn't work for Europe, and too many top Americans didn't bother going to Valderrama.

Whatever change Finchem has in mind must have the support of Woods, the No. 1 attraction in golf. Woods already has met at least twice with the commissioner, including last week at Firestone.

Still, the process is not causing Finchem too much concern.

The greater challenge came three years ago. Finchem negotiated a four-year TV contract in July 2001 that approached $1 billion, then spent the next year scrambling to replace nine corporate title sponsors when the economy soured after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This task is more about moving a variety of pieces into the right places, each move affecting another.

"It's taken a lot longer than we thought," Finchem said. "It's going to be very late in the year before we get to television [negotiations]. I would be concerned about that, because we don't like to be within a year of starting the next season. But this year is a little different in the sense we've extended so many title sponsors."

Bridgestone signed up as title sponsor of the World Golf Championship event at Firestone through 2010, and Finchem said he has 20 other title sponsors secured through the length of the next TV contract (2007-10).

Now all he has to do is figure out where they all fit.

And hope it works.

 

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