New World Order: Tournaments battling timing handicaps

by | Senior Golf Columnist

Gary Woodland won at Innisbrook last year in a field not as strong as 2012's. (Getty Images)  
Gary Woodland won at Innisbrook last year in a field not as strong as 2012's. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Anybody who has ever watched a tournament on television understands that not all events are created equally.

Some have bigger purses and routinely draw top players, a few are penciled in as so-called opposite events staged the same week as major championships, some are played on courses that players do not universally embrace, others are hosted by major golf icons.

Even the top network announcers skip the third-tier events at times. Other than green grass, 18 tees and the same number of flagsticks, that's about where the similarities with the most successful tour stops end.

The biggest determinant of success, though, often relates to the simple sands of time.

With player participation numbers falling over the past few years for the game's stars -- the top 10 on the U.S. money list averaged 26 starts in 1980, a number that fell by a whopping five starts to 21.3 in 2010 -- the competition for the big guns is tight. Tournament directors hit the road to recruit, dangling special treatment, free hotel rooms, baubles for the wife and kids, and even air-fare specials.

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Truly, overcoming a perceived bad date is a hurdle that requires some outside-the-ropes thinking. If not a smattering of dumb luck.

For years, the Honda Classic was the low man on the four-event Florida Swing pole, positioned after the tour had played several weeks on the West Coast. Attendance by top players was sparse, and the event jumped around to various South Florida venues in search of the right fit, migrating like seasonal birds. The big birds on tour flat stayed home.

Then it was positioned on the calendar after the Accenture Match Play event in Arizona, and directly before the tournament at nearby Doral, which was converted into a World Golf Championships event. Last week, Doral became the eighth tournament since 2005 to draw all 50 of the world's top players.

Late last year, Tiger Woods moved to the area.

Just like that, fortuitously sandwiched between two bazillion-dollar WGC events and blessed by the relocation of the game's top draw, many of the top international players stuck around to play the Honda, too, and Woods quickly signed up to play his new hometown event for the first time.

So, when it comes to pulling off a successful tournament, it's not just about the who, what and where -- the when can often prove to be the most crucial part of the equation.

This week's New World Order looks at tournaments that face the toughest hurdles from a timing standpoint. Out of sheer fairness, most of the Fall Series and opposite events were excluded, because they feature lesser purses and staging handicaps that other events don't.

As an aside, tournament directors have complained that writers use the world rankings too often as the primary yardstick as it relates to field strength, but with all but one of the top 23 players in the current world ranking signed up as a member of the PGA Tour, it's the most non-subjective measure around. So for the purposes of highlighting the case, 2011 rankings will serve to articulate the point.

Note: This is not a ranking, per se, but a drive-by look at the difficult task faced by events trying to attract the game's heavy firepower in an increasingly more complicated global market.

Wyndham Championship
Greensboro, N.C.
Aug. 16-19
Number of top-50 players last year: 9

A few years back, when the Greensboro event was inserted into the so-called "regular season" after being parked in the Fall Series, the townsfolk were ecstatic. Some of us with a more acute understanding of the logistics issues were not so optimistic. The thing is, the Greensboro tournament is staged the week after the WGC event at Firestone and the PGA Championship, and immediately before the four-event FedEx Cup series. Top players in that stretch are faced with playing six times in eight weeks, so adding Greensboro just heightens the load. Fortunately for the tournament storyline, several top players have been forced to add Greensboro over the past few seasons in a last-ditch attempt to add FedEx Cup points, including Paul Casey, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia.

Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Kapalua, Hawaii
Jan. 6-9
Number of top-50 players last year: 9

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson skipped it for years. Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel did this year, too. The PGA Tour's annual season opener has been charitably described as a "soft opening," and that's a generous term. No event on the tour has generated more inches of copy than has the Hyundai, which has been called the weakest opening event in any of the major sports. Each year, writers offer ways to fix the field, which is supposed to include every player who won on the tour in the previous season. After an offseason of chasing appearance fees, several key top players have found it increasingly easy to stay home. If the tour goes to a wrap-around season in 2013-14, it will be interesting to see how the event fares when it's technically not the opener.

Humana Challenge
La Quinta, Calif.
Jan. 19-22
Number of top-50 players last year: 6

This event has undergone the biggest makeover in recent tour history with the addition of former president Bill Clinton as the figurehead. Doomed to poor player attendance by the triple-whammy of its date, course rotation, format and geography, the former Bob Hope Classic was a five-round tournament that was the first Mainland event after two weeks in Hawaii. Players had two days to get from Honolulu to Palm Springs before the next event started and more than a few didn't bother trying. The Wednesday round was eliminated, the pro-am was pared back, and attendance this year perked up. Last year, in its final year as the Bob Hope -- moving his name from the marquee was not universally popular -- it drew the same number of top-50 players as the Portuguese Masters. Ouch.

Transitions Championship
Palm Harbor, Fla.
March 15-18
Number of top-50 players last year: 18

The best selling point is the Innisbrook Resort course, which ranked as the ninth-best on tour in a poll of players by GolfWorld magazine and is regarded by many as the best Florida track on tour, TPC Sawgrass included. But the timing is rough. With the top players having teed it up at match play and Doral, it would mean three starts in four weeks, and the following week in Orlando features the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where players annually migrate to genuflect before the tournament's namesake king. It will be interesting to track the Tampa event's status after firing its popular tournament director last year while searching for a title sponsor after the Transitions deal expires this week.

RBC Canadian Open
Various rotation of sites
July 26-29
Number of top-50 players last year: 12

One of a couple of events that has been unofficially dubbed the "fifth major" over the past few decades, the Canadian had been in a pretty pronounced decline because of its Transatlantic slot after the British Open. The Royal Canadian Golf Association began chartering a Sunday-night jet to ferry players directly to the tournament site from the U.K., which helped, but it was another nuance that really bolstered the field -- the payment of De facto appearance fees. Sponsor Royal Bank of Canada began an "ambassador" program in which it cut bag deals with several players, including Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Matt Kuchar and Anthony Kim, thus ensuring their attendance in the event. As everybody knows, paying appearance fees are verboten on the PGA Tour, but pretty much everything else is fair game. Wink, wink.

Children's Miracle Network Classic at Disney World
Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Nov. 8-11
Number of top-50 players last year: 4

It's the last event on the tour schedule for the year, and is the only Fall Series event we have included, mainly because no other tournament faces a bigger travel issue with regard to attracting top players. The two weeks prior to Disney, the tour stages big-money, limited-field events in Malaysia and China, which means that even the top players living in Orlando have been disinclined to fly halfway around the world to tee it up at Disney. This event also needs a new title sponsor after this year.

John Deere Classic
Silvis, Ill.
July 12-15
Number of top-50 players last year: 6

The tournaments that follow the majors, such as Travelers, the Canadian and Hilton Head, often are stung by big player burnout, not big-player turnout. The Deere has battled that issue on the front end. Parked on the calendar the week before the British Open, which requires a full day of travel from the States in which to play, the Deere officials were the first to charter a plane for players, caddies and families, shipping them straight to the U.K. after play in the States concludes Sunday night. Having a terrific title sponsor and a top-tier tournament director also helps offset the logistics issues, and the Deere has settled into a nice, family friendly niche. Having Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American player in the world, as a two-time defending champ doesn't hurt, either.


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