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A major hole in the fall: PGA Tour may go to blockbuster season-ending event
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For almost 50 years, the golf season has been defined by four major championships that start in April with the Masters and end in August with the PGA Championship.
What the PGA Tour wants is a World Series, its own version of a Fall Classic.
Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is pulling together the final pieces of a radical shift in the schedule to feature a shorter season and a points race that intensifies after the majors. The plan is for three blockbuster events to qualify for the Tour Championship, with perhaps a $10 million payoff to the winner.
Multiple sources involved in the discussion, all speaking on condition of anonymity because the changes have not been announced, say the three tournaments will be the Barclays Classic in New York, the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston and the Western Open in Chicago.
Still undecided is a title sponsor for the Western Open, with Chrysler in negotiations over the weekend.
Finchem will give his "State of the Tour" on Wednesday at the Tour Championship, although he might only be able to provide an outline of the proposed changes.
"I'm not quite sure what I'm going to say," Finchem said in an interview. "We've got so many things going on. Given where we are, on the brink of going to TV [negotiations], I don't want to mislead anyone. But I want to give folks a broad sense of what we're looking at."
A PGA Tour source said Finchem might be in position to announce The Players Championship moving from the end of March to the beginning of May, which would give golf a major event every month from April to August.
The changes are designed to put some sizzle into the end of the year, when TV ratings plummet as golf struggles to compete against football.
Finchem believes golf can hold its own in September when football is just getting started, and would fare much better than in early November when the Tour Championship typically is held. He was inspired by higher ratings the last two months at the Presidents Cup, which came down to the final match, and the American Express Championship, where Tiger Woods beat John Daly in a playoff.
"Good tournaments can compete and perform very nicely," Finchem said. "And the Tour Championship doesn't do that bad, but it's too far removed. It reinforced to us that if you put something special out there, we can carry the audience with us into September. And if it's a strong enough finish, then the season becomes more important."
This isn't the first time the tour has tried to revamp the end of the year.
It created the Vantage Championship in 1986, which offered a $1 million purse -- enormous in those days -- along with a $500,000 bonus to the winner of a season-long points competition. Also available was a $25,000 bonus for leading each of the nine statistical categories.
The event was tweaked a year later. The Nabisco Championship -- the precursor to the Tour Championship -- again offered massive prize money and a separate payoff for the points race, only all the money counted as official.
"When it first was played in 1987, it was a huge deal," said Curtis Strange, whose playoff victory over Tom Kite at Pebble Beach in the 1988 Nabisco determined the money title and made him golf's first $1 million man.
"It was done to help the fields at the end of the year," he said. "The top players didn't play any more than they would have. But guys from (Nos.) 25 to 50 did everything in their power to get in it."
The Tour Championship has lost some of its buzz in recent years. Its prize money, $6.5 million this year, is less than the World Golf Championships ($7.5 million) and not much more than tournaments such as the Wachovia Championship. Plus, the Tour Championship has not decided player of the year seven out of the last 10 years.
The new model would not allow for that.
Woods already has won two majors, two World Golf Championships and has clinched the money title. One source privy to the discussion said under the new model, points would be adjusted after the PGA Championship so that up to 70 players would still have a chance to qualify for the Tour Championship and win the points chase.
The source said the latest proposal is for the points race to start at the season-opening Mercedes Championships and run through the PGA Championship. Then, points would be staggered for the final month of the season, much like NASCAR's Chase for the championship.
The Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone would switch to the week before the PGA Championship instead of the week after. That means players like Woods or Phil Mickelson might have to compete in six events in seven weeks.
"We kind of have to if you want to have a chance of the playoff system, especially toward the end of the year," Woods said. "If you're playing well, you're going to have to play them all."
Woods has met with Finchem at least four times this year, and presumably has signed off on the changes.
The one fear about change is getting rid of tournaments that have languished in the fall with bad fields and low TV ratings. But as the tour gets closer to its finished product, it appears more likely that those events will be played after the Tour Championship and give some players a chance to still finish in the top 125 and keep their cards. In fact, two sources said the tour might add an event in Northern California, and a title sponsor already has been found.
It's all part of a plan to make golf compelling beyond the four majors.
"There has always been this challenge, having as long a season as we have, trying to define it for the fan," Finchem said. "The reason the other sports find it easy is because their season is always about the end. We need a culminating event that's special, and that you have to play hard to get into."