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PGA Tour season ends at Disney this week

The PGA Tour seasons ends at Disney, where a group of relative unknowns are trying to make enough money to keep their cards. The European tour season begins in Shanghai, where a host of millionaires embark on the lucrative “Race to Dubai.”

But the differences between the tours go beyond the alpha and omega of their seasons.

Europe is awash in optimism over its makeover. It has a new logo featuring the swing of Harry Vardon (golf’s first global player) and a world skyline that represents the two dozen countries the tour will visit over the next 13 months.

It has a new name for the Order of Merit—the Race to Dubai, which could pay as much as $3.66 million to the winner. And it could have a lot of new faces who have joined the tour, such as Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogilvy.

Phil Mickelson was expected to join, but he said Tuesday he might wait one year before deciding.

“I’m not ready to commit to it,” he said at the HSBC Champions. “It might be something I do next year. I wouldn’t rule it out.”

In the meantime, that leaves Kim as the only American—assuming Villegas doesn’t count as a South American—to lead this so-called migration to the European tour.

As for the PGA Tour?

There is a perception it is sliding down a tax bracket into upper-middle class because of the financial meltdown, even though that is a global concern.

Much is made over some of its players—none named Tiger Woods, by the way— spending more time in Europe, even though that amounts to playing only five extra tournaments overseas. Ridicule is aimed at the FedEx Cup, even though its bonus pool is $35 million, which is 3 1/2 times more than what the Race to Dubai offers.

All dollars being equal, what exactly does lucrative mean?

The HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where Mickelson is the defending champion, is among the richer events on the European tour with a $5 million purse.

That’s $400,000 more than what is offered at Disney, the final event of the Fall Series.

Take away the majors and World Golf Championships, and the richest event in Europe last year was the BMW Championship at Wentworth, with a purse of about $6.8 million. The four FedEx Cup playoff events had prize money of $7 million.

The Race to Dubai concludes with the top 60 players eligible for the Dubai World Championship next November, with a $10 million purse for the tournament and a $10 million bonus pool paid among the top 15 on the points list. If someone wins both, he gets $3.66 million.

Villegas earned $4.126 million for winning the Tour Championship and finishing second in the FedEx Cup. Sergio Garcia earned $2.756 million for finishing second in the tournament and third in the points race.

That $10 million bonus pool for the Race to Dubai? Vijay Singh earned that much alone for winning the FedEx Cup.

But value isn’t always determined by the size of the check.

What makes the HSBC Champions appealing is the strength of field, which equates to more world ranking points. Such was the case at the Volvo Masters last week, and last year at the Abu Dhabi Championship and Barclays Scottish Open.

The worst-case scenario for the PGA Tour is more of its players spending more time in Europe, thus diminishing fields that already suffer without Woods.

Among those likely to take a hit are the Sony Open and Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. They are opposite Abu Dhabi and Qatar, tournaments that offer appearance money, luxurious accommodations and are early enough in the year that travel is no bother.

Garcia will not be playing the Sony Open or the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship because he’ll start his year in Abu Dhabi halfway around the world.

“From a tournament standpoint, I’ve not heard anything from the tour,” said Mike Milthorpe, tournament director of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. “I’m not sure we can do anything about it. The question is why? Is it because it’s an opportunity to make more money, or are they making a statement?”

PGA Tour members must play 15 times to get three releases for conflicting events (such as Europe). They are to play five more times for each additional release. But those are just guidelines, and there have been exceptions over the years for the likes of Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

Will it hurt the PGA Tour if its members join the European tour? Not at all.

It might hurt a couple of tournaments, but only if everyone shows up at the same place in Europe.

This makeover is great news for Europe, and it’s good for golf. The PGA Tour ultimately benefits from a strong European tour, for their players bring more value to the United States when they show up, which is more often than they play at home.

The PGA Tour looks like it’s reeling because for the last two generations, it was the ultimate destination for the world’s best players. Now there’s an additional tour to chase dreams, glory and money. That’s not a bad thing.

The time to worry is when players like Padraig Harrington, Garcia and Els stop coming to America.


November 5, 2008

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