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Archive for Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tournaments can survive without Tiger, but why?

February 14, 2007

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— Tiger Woods did not show up at Pebble Beach. Attendance and other numbers used to measure success will be down this year, and tournament director Ollie Nutt won't have to look hard to place the blame.

The weather.

Woods hasn't been to the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am since 2002, yet officials somehow have managed to hand out a trophy, pay out more than $5 million in prize money and still provide for their local charities.

Ditto for the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head, an idyllic locale that Woods hasn't been to since 1999 and probably won't return any time soon. Stanford Financial has taken over sponsorship in Memphis, even though there's a better chance of getting Elvis than Tiger.

The world's No. 1 player hasn't been to the Honda Classic since he was a 17-year-old amateur.

In fact, Woods never has played nine longtime events on the PGA Tour since turning pro, and all of them are still on the schedule.

Jack Vickers might call that a miracle.

The Denver oilman pulled the plug on his beloved International tournament, the one with the modified Stableford scoring system played on picturesque Castle Pines Golf Club, where he treated every guest like royalty except for those meddlesome thunderstorms.

The problem was the tour's price tag ($8 million) and no sponsor to pick up the tab for an event played around the Fourth of July. Vickers was quick to attribute the demise to Woods, the star attraction on the PGA Tour who last played there in 1999.

"If he shows, everything changes," Vickers said. "You've got a one-man show out there right now that is the big difference."

He's right about the PGA Tour being a one-man show.

Woods isn't simply driving golf, he's perhaps the most famous athlete in any sport worldwide. When he plays, crowds are crammed behind the ropes of every fairway, TV ratings spike and everyone goes home happy.

And when he doesn't?

"We'd love to have him," Nutt said at Pebble Beach. "But it's been four years since he's been here, and our attendance is going up every year. This year with the weather, we'll be off a little bit. But last year we did 70 percent in advance sales, and that was even before we knew if he was coming. You can't build an event around any one person."

Vickers never realized that.

Pebble Beach is a special place, a special tournament. Even without Woods, the crowd turns out - especially on Saturday - to see the antics of Bill Murray, to hear one-liners from George Lopez, to coo over Kevin Costner.

Vickers, however, believed the scenery was just as spectacular in the mountains, his course was good enough for a U.S. Open, and that his tournament was the best thing west of the Waffle House on Washington Road in Augusta.

He wanted Tiger.

He made excuses when Tiger didn't show up, usually blaming the PGA Tour for his spot on the schedule, whether it was a week after the PGA Championship, a week before or even two weeks before.

Too bad Vickers never made as big of a stink over who he had, not who he didn't. Phil Mickelson played the International every year but one since 1992.

Ernie Els skipped only in 2005 when he was on crutches. Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen only missed one year, and that was when the PGA Championship was held a week later at a new site in Whistling Straits.

How many tournaments would love to have all those guys? Or any of them?

Not having Tiger didn't help the International, but the fact cannot be ignored that Woods plays only about 18 times a year - the same number as Jack Nicklaus at that stage in his career - and those tournaments he skips are still in business.

"Those weeks he doesn't play, we have a great tournament," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said, drinking from a half-full glass. He noted the two tournaments that raised the most charity money in the last 12 months were Phoenix and the Texas Open, "and neither of them has seen Tiger lately."

Kym Hougham understands how Vickers feels.

He's the tournament director of the Wachovia Championship, which in many ways has the same sizzle the International did two decades ago. Woods didn't show up at Quail Hollow last year because his father died, but Wachovia still got 11 of the top 13 players in the world.

Hougham exaggerated only slightly when he said the talk around town was "we should fold up the tournament and shut it down."

But he also knows the other half lives.

Hougham spent six years as tournament director of the John Deere Classic, an also-ran on tour until it gave a sponsor's exemption to Woods when he turned pro in 1996.

The tournament was a sellout.

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