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New look PGA Tour launches

The PGA Tour's much-trumpeted new era, starting this week with the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, has earned a mixed response from the players.

Although many have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, some are excited about what lies ahead while others anticipate a rigorous closing schedule and are disappointed the four majors, golf's holy grail, have been devalued.

Unquestionably, though, the PGA Tour has taken bold steps to breathe fresh life into its late-season events with a NASCAR-style finale.

Fan interest has generally waned once the final major, the PGA Championship, ends in mid-August and television ratings afterwards have steadily declined in recent years.

In a radical shake-up of the schedule, PGA Tour officials have established the FedExCup, a season-long points competition which will culminate in a four-event playoff series with $10 million to be won by the overall champion.

Thirty-six tournaments will make up the regular season before the big-money playoffs are held, ending with the Sept. 13-16 Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia for the top 30 players.

Between Sept. 20 and Nov. 4, a Fall Series of seven tournaments will finalise the leading 125 players who automatically earn full exemption for the 2008 PGA Tour.

"The big change is when you've got all the players that are in contention for something playing four weeks in a row," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told reporters last year.

"It's unique, it's different and I think the players are relating to it. I am totally confident we're going to put on some playoff events that are going to be extraordinary."

A key factor in the success of the inaugural FedExCup will be whether the game's biggest names, such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, compete in the playoff events.

"I don't have guarantees from anybody but they tell me they want to play," Finchem added. "They're looking forward to it and they like the way the competition sets up.

"If you've heard one refrain from Tiger and other top players over the years, it's that they want to play against all the best players more often."

Woods, a 12-times major champion, has always structured his playing schedule around the game's elite tournaments and has indicated he will support the FedExCup.

"It's certainly going to be more exciting for everyone, not just us as competitors who will be bucking heads against the best more often but also for the fans," he said.

"By having a condensed season, I think that you'll see more of the top players playing against each other in the same fields and that's ultimately what the fans want to see."

Masters champion Mickelson, who has traditionally wound down his playing schedule after the PGA Championship in August, has also embraced the FedExCup.

"The big thing for me is that I need an end-point," he said.

"There's an end point now, as opposed to dragging on for 12 months and never having the point where you relax and say: `Okay, we're done for a while, let's take a break'."

Some concerns have, however, been expressed by twice British Open champion Greg Norman and world number two Jim Furyk, winner of the 2003 U.S. Open.

"The bottom line is that golf's crown jewels are, have been, and will always be the four majors," Australian Norman said.

"You can't purchase history, tradition or a legacy for $10 million. Those things are priceless."

American Furyk is unhappy with a FedExCup formula that apportions 25,000 points to regular PGA Tour events, 26,250 to the three World Golf Championships events and `only' 27,500 to the four majors and the Players Championship.

"The devaluing of the major championships is a real sore spot with me," he said.

"Why wouldn't a major be worth 37,500? They should come with a lot more than a 10 percent increase."

Three-times major winner Ernie Els is excited by what he describes as the new buzz to be generated on the PGA Tour but predicts a relentless tournament shedule for many players over the FedExCup's closing stretch.

Only at the end of the season will organisers get a real idea of the success of the new format, how often golf's biggest drawcards have played and how much higher the television ratings have been driven by the season's lucrative playoff finale.

December 31, 2006


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