Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This Week in Golf

PGA Tour – The best golfers in the world stay in the state of Hawaii this week for the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. Last year some big names ended up at the top of the leaderboard with Zach Johnson winning. This year two side stories have emerged. 2005 Sony Open champion Vijay Singh makes his first start since having knee surgery in November, and bad-boy John Daly makes a rare PGA Tour appearance since his suspension last year. Some Champions Tour players are also getting a head start on their colleagues, who do not begin play until the end of January. Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, and Michael Allen are in the field along with soon to be 50-year-old Mark Calcavecchia. They are probably here for the surroundings and the course. Big hitters are not necessarily favored at Waialae as evidenced by past champions Johnson, Pavin, David Toms, and Brad Faxon. My pick to win on the 2010 Sony Open is Justin Leonard. Leonard was a member of the U.S. President’s Cup team and had runner-up finishes in Las Vegas last fall and in Naples during December. My sleeper pick this week is the rookie, Rickie Fowler. I cannot stand the way this kid dresses, but I do not appreciate golf fashion. However, this youngster has proven he has game and nerves able to handle Sunday pressure on the PGA Tour. Depending on the wind, very low scores are a strong possibility. Even up to twenty under par may be necessary for victory. The Golf Channel will broadcast all four rounds from Oahu.

Champions Tour – The Champions Tour sanctions one more unofficial event before the start of the official 2010 Champions Tour season. From Royal Ka’anapali in Hawaii, the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game is a two-man alternate shot format tournament featuring four teams of legendary champions. The defending team features Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller. They will be competing against Jack Nicklaus-Tom Watson, Loren Roberts-Gary Player, and Fred Couples-Nick Price. Jack and Gary have played the Senior Skins for many years, but Couples will be playing in a 50+ event for the first time this week. My favorite to win has to be Nicklaus-Watson. How could anyone bet against that team? The sleeper pick would be the youngest squad, Couples-Price. I appreciate both of those swings. Couples has the smooth, effortless swing I wish I had, and Nick has that compact slash at the ball that is much more similar to my short iron swing. ESPN will televise the Skins.

Mail Bag: Golf Tour Schedules – Many sports fans who do not pay that much attention to golf have no clue how the wacky golfing schedule works. It certainly is not as cut and dried as the big three’s preseason, regular season, and postseason routines. In the golfing world, players work as independent contractors. No one can tell them when, where, or how often they must play. Most touring professional thoroughly enjoy the freedom that this system affords them. Now, certain requirements must be met in order to be a member of any particular golfing tour, but even non-members can fairly easily get into the field at events on pretty much any tour. By far the most competitive professional golf tours are the PGA Tour, based in the United States, and the European Tour. Many other tours do exist, though, such as the Nationwide Tour, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, Hooters Tour, Australasian Tour, Sunshine Tour, and many more. Each of these tours creates a rotation of tournaments that its members and some non-members may participate in. Tours in the Southern Hemisphere, like the Sunshine Tour of South Africa, host their most competitive events in their summertime from December through February. While the big tours of the Northern Hemisphere play their best matches in June, July, and August.

The most competitive tour in the world is the PGA Tour. The best from all over the world play at least some of their golf on this tour. It cannot be equated to MLB or the NBA because other, nearly as competitive tours are out there. Maybe professional soccer would be a better comparison with the best leagues being in Europe and a less competitive league in the U.S.. Even though, every one of the best golfers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has played some golf in the U.S., not every great player has been a PGA Tour member, even today. In order to be a member, one must maintain a schedule of at least fourteen tournaments a year on the PGA Tour. For some international players, this requirement is too demanding on their time because they desire to continue playing back in their homeland fairly often. Therefore, the tours compete amongst themselves for the best players in the world.

The PGA Tour has forty-six officially sanctioned events it is putting on in 2010. Every week from January 7 through November 14 the PGA Tour will host at least one event. Most events are comprised of optional practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, semi-optional pro-am practice rounds on Wednesday, and official tournament play Thursday through Sunday. So the players participating in an event arrive to town on Monday or early Tuesday. Then they stay through Sunday night or Monday morning. Most PGA Tour tournaments allow 156 players into the field. After every player has completed 36 holes, only the top 70 plus ties are allowed to play during the weekend. And only those players making the midway cut make any money. A handful of tournaments have smaller fields, or play five rounds, or do not have a cut, but this general procedure is a good rule of thumb.

Each player can choose to try to get into which ever tournaments he wants to compete in. Everybody has his own favorite events, courses, or destinations. Typically, though, the best fields happened to be at the tournaments with the largest purses. Not only do these players want to make money, especially since they are never guaranteed to make anything, but the more money they make on one tour, the easier time they will have getting into the tournaments of their choice later on. The PGA Tour keeps track of how much money each player has made over the course of the season, and depending on where a player falls on the money list, he may get additional perks, such as not having to qualify to get into a major championship. So playing more often on just one tour has its benefits.

The PGA Tour introduced a new points system in 2007 called the FedEx Cup. It is a copy of NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series. Each top ten finish in any PGA Tour event from January through the middle of August garners a player a certain number of FedEx Cup points. Beginning in late August, only the top 140 or so players get into the PGA Tour Playoffs. There are four tournaments in the Playoffs, and each week only the top finishers are allowed to move on to the next event in the Playoffs. The finals of the Playoffs is the TOUR Championship. Only the top thirty competitors of the Playoff events get into the final showdown. However, the winner of the TOUR Championship may not necessarily win the Playoffs. The top point getter during the four events is crowned champion of the year. Therefore, you could have two trophy presentations on Sunday at the TOUR Championship like we did in 2009. Phil Mickelson won the tournament, but Tiger Woods had accumulated the greatest amount of points during the four Playoff events. It is an imperfect system, and the Tour realizes that. Last year was only the third Playoffs they had ever attempted. Each year has seen tweaks to the system, and player and fan feedback has grown more positive each time.

Since the PGA Tour had been operating without a “postseason” system for many decades and they did not want to have their playoff events competing with mid to late season NFL games, some regular Tour stops had to be excluded from the new “regular season.” In order to keep these tournament on their roster, the Tour created a “Fall Series” that begins following the Playoffs. These events have traditionally drawn weaker fields and attention. They feel lucky not to have been cut from the schedule three years ago, but they also know they will not get the likes of Woods or Mickelson to play their courses anymore. Four events from September through November make up the Fall Series. Finishes at these tournaments do not count toward the FedEx Cup, and many pros are ready for a break after playing twenty-three to thirty weeks of the first eight months of the year. The Fall Series fields are usually comprised of players who are trying to earn their PGA Tour membership cards for the following year by finishing in the top 125 on the money list.

The media has dubbed the remaining unofficial events of every November and December the “Silly Season.” These events usually donate the vast majority of their proceeds to charities and have alternative formats of play. The Skins Game is traditionally played the week of Thanksgiving, for example. Greg Norman hosts another Silly Season event in Florida called the Shark Shootout, which pits various two-man teams against one another in a variety of formats over the course of the week. Results of Silly Season events do not gain the players any additional benefits besides padding their pocketbooks, and that money does not count on the official PGA Tour money list for the year.

Players who cannot get into Silly Season events may play overseas to keep their game sharp or experience other parts of the world. Australia’s major championships are played in December. Nedbank sponsors a challenge in South Africa where the winner takes home $2 million. The biggest draw for big name American players to international events is appearance fees. Foreign countries have not outlawed tournaments giving golfers an assured sum of money just for showing up at an event. In the United States, appearance fees are illegal. Tiger Woods received $3 million to play in the Australia Masters last month. Others, such as John Daly, bring in less, but the guarantee still draws them in.

The European Tour is obviously based in Europe, but they sanction events in the Middle East, United States, South Africa, and Asia as well. They will hold forty-eight tournaments for their “2010 season.” However, their 2010 season began the first week of December 2009. Talk about confusing! Another confusing aspect of this globetrotting tour is their name. They do not play in the continent of Europe the first twelve events of their season.

The European Tour has never been as strong as its American counterpart. However, the European Tour is stronger than it has ever been. Almost weekly, their tournaments draw players from the top twenty in the world. Eight of the top fifteen players in the world are European Tour members. These same players still frequently play the PGA Tour, but their primary allegiance is to European Tour.

The European Tour does not have an off-season of any kind. They play year-round. They instituted a system similar to the PGA Tour’s playoffs last year. It is called the Race to Dubai. They accumulate points throughout the year, and only the top players get into the final event in Dubai in November. The winner then takes home a large cash bonus and a possibly a little extra pride. However, these playoff systems are so new that victory in them is somewhat hollow outside of the money. In golf, tradition speaks volumes, and the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai have almost zero tradition. The majors are still what count the most.

The Nationwide Tour is another American based tour that is analogous to Triple A baseball. These pros make a decent living playing their favorite game at beautiful golf courses, but they are not at the same level as the PGA or European Tours. Many graduates of the Nationwide Tour go on to have successful PGA Tour careers. Tom Lehman, David Duval, and Jim Furyk are well-known former members. The Nationwide Tour has gone by various name through the years: the Tour, Nike Tour, and Ben Hogan Tour. They will play twenty-eight different venues from January through the end of October. Unlike others, this tour actually does take a break in November, December, and most of January.

The Champions Tour, formerly known as the Senior Tour, is exclusively for professionals 50 years or older. They will play twenty-five tournaments from the end of January through the beginning of November. The old guys get some weeks off in-between tournaments. Many of their events are only contested over 54 holes instead of the standard 72.

The LPGA Tour is for ladies only. They will play only twenty-four events in 2010. They had been up to thirty tournaments not long ago, but sponsorship for their events has dwindled during the recession. The ladies play from February through November. However, many weeks in-between are off-weeks just like on the Champions Tour. The LPGA also holds mostly 54 hole events.

Many other professional golf tours are out there, but these are the only ones that I ever report on in This Week in Golf. The scheduling is a confusing and inconsistent mess. However, fans enjoy being able to watch high quality professional golf every week of the year. The best golf is played during the summer, but I still got a thrill out of following last week’s PGA Tour action from Hawaii.

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