Friday, July 29, 2005

Texas Tour Stops in Trouble?

The most recent issue of Golfweek has an interesting article about the coming negotiations between the PGA Tour and the television networks for the Tour's next TV package. All three major networks that televise golf - CBS, NBC and ABC - are losing millions of dollars on the current deal. USA Network is also losing money.

So the Tour is faced with having to possibly take a more than $100 million "pay cut" in its next TV contract, or coming up with ways to convince the networks that ratings will go up (thereby justifying the current contract figures).

How might the PGA Tour help boost the networks' ratings? From various things I've read and heard, it seems clear the Tour is focusing on only one possibility: rearranging - and shortening - the PGA Tour season.

The Tour now plays what is essentially a yearround schedule. Only December is completely free of PGA Tour events. The Tour Championship closes out the "official" PGA Tour season the first week of November (a WGC event and various "silly season" tournaments continue through November and December).

The Tour's thinking seems to be two-fold:

1. Move the Players Championship from March to May. This gets the "fifth major" out of competition with the NCAA basketball tournament and plops it down in a month that currently does not have a major. Ratings for this one tournament should increase significantly by virtue of not having to compete with "March Madness," and the prestige of the tournament - the Tour has always wanted it to be considered a real major - probably also goes up.

2. Shorten the season. The Tour Championship, according to speculation, moves to mid-September and the official PGA Tour season ends a month and a half earlier, removing competition for TV viewers posed by early season NFL games. There might also be some sort of "points race," ala NASCAR, to get into the Tour Championship. Fewer tournaments should lead to the Tour's best players facing each other more often.

It's No. 2 that should concern Texas golf fans. The first question that comes up when you hear the Tour might stop playing in mid-September is: What about the Texas Open? The Texas Open is played in mid-September.

But a lot of the "Fall Finish" tournaments - those played after the PGA Championship, which usually feature weak fields and weaker TV ratings - might be on the chopping block.

The Texas Open does have two things going for it: It's one of the top tournaments of the year in terms of money raised for charity, something the PGA Tour greatly values; and in a couple years, the tournament is slated to move to the Tour's newest TPC course. Would the PGA Tour kill a tournament played at one of its own golf courses? San Antonians better hope not.

There are three other tournaments in Texas, the Byron Nelson, Colonial and the Shell Houston Open. All three are played in the meat of the PGA schedule, in April and May between The Masters and the U.S. Open. But May is where the Players Championship might be moving.

There's no way - none - that the Byron Nelson would be discontinued as long as Mr. Nelson is alive. (After he passes, all bets are off - because a lot of golfers who currently consider the tournament a must-play would no longer think of it that way. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, among others, seem sure to drop the Nelson once Lord Byron is gone.)

The Shell Houston Open seems very safe, too. It has a major, major sponsor and is moving to a sparkling new golf course next year.

Fields at the Colonial have dropped off dramatically over the past decade, following the death of Ben Hogan. And the golf course - long considered a classic by players - is no longer a favorite. It's short, tight and with a lot of doglegs. The big bombers can't bomb it at Colonial, and many of the them don't play it anymore.

So if the PGA Tour schedule is shortened and some tournaments bite the dust, what does it mean for Texas tour stops?

  • Nothing to worry about: the Byron Nelson and Shell Houston Open.
  • Something to worry about: Colonial and Texas Open.
I believe Colonial is the most vulnerable, and despite that tournament's great history I believe that if one of the Texas tournaments is cut, Colonial will be that one.

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