GORDON WHITE: Tiger Hunt: Fans Won't Find Him at Tour Championship
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The 20th Tour Championship that concludes today at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta was deflated to the status of a "so what" competition days before it began, when Tiger Woods took himself out of the season-ending event that is limited to the top 30 money winners on the PGA Tour.
Phil Mickelson, who makes a habit of not competing after the PGA Championship in August, dropped out as expected for the second straight year, and Stephen Ames withdrew with a back injury. That is why anyone watching has been looking at 27 rich golfers who are little more than stage extras in this day and age of Tiger Woods golf extravaganzas.
Golf fans and non-golf fans turn on TV and buy tickets to tournaments when they know they will be able to watch Tiger Woods. Sure, Mickelson is a crowd favorite. But it is Woods everyone wants to see. Rarely has a single athlete drawn such attention world wide as this man who may well go down in history as the best golfer to play the game -- if and when he surpasses all of Jack Nicklaus' major tournament records.
So it has not been a happy week for Coca-Cola, the Tour Championship sponsor, or ESPN and ABC television networks that scheduled a total of 19.5 hours of live telecasts and eight hours of evening replay.
John Derr, my friend who was director of sports for CBS radio back when, said, "A large part of the success of a sporting event is expectation and then the fulfillment of that expectation. Tiger is everyone's expectation in a tournament he is supposed to play. His withdrawal cast aside all expectations of this Tour Championship, lowering it to even less than one of the average tournaments he never enters. That is because there were high hopes."
Tiger, long ranked as the world's No. 1 golfer, claimed he was exhausted mentally and physically from too much golf, travel and whatever in this year when he won eight tour events, including two more majors, and suffered a great loss with the death of his father in May.
But Tiger Woods, who will obviously receive huge appearance fees, will be off next week for a tournament in Shanghai China, to start what amounts to the post-tour campaign where there are oodles of money to be had. That Chinese show is followed a week later by a tournament in Mayazaki, Japan. Then it is back to a tourney in Hawaii followed by Tiger's Target World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Tom Stewart, long a golf club professional in Michigan and Florida before opening the Old Sport and Gallery shop in Pinehurst a dozen years ago, said, "Anyone worth a billion dollars like Tiger does not need to be told where and when to appear. But his argument about not appearing in the Tour Championship evaporates when you see he is going to China for a tournament next week."
Speaking of Tiger's absence, the PGA Tour Commissioner, Tim Finchem, said last Wednesday, "I'm disappointed, candidly. There's no other way to characterize it."
Just think how many millions of fans felt the same.
The question is obvious:
Did Tiger owe it to fans, to the PGA Tour, to tournament sponsors and even to himself to compete in this event as expected?
The jury is out on that one.
I have been around superstar athletes for more than half a century. The demands upon them are great and constant. To watch some of them give of time and effort to appease the clamoring crowds, sponsors and wealthy hangers-on is to marvel at their patience.
Tiger is well aware of what he is in this pantheon of global sports. He may just be the current No. 1 star in that galaxy. So he knows he has to deal with such pressures.
Davis Love III excused Tiger and said his absence comes as no surprise. Love claimed the Tour Championship was a victim of the PGA Tour's large financial success.
"The more big tournaments you get with big money," Love said, "the more opportunities there are for guys to skip."
Under Finchem's leadership the prize money on tour has multiplied by leaps and bounds. Certainly Tiger has no incentive to make more money. He has won $9,941,563 this year, and no one will catch him even by winning the Tour Championship today with its $6.5 million purse and top prize of $1,170,000.
I covered the second Tour Championship in 1988 when Curtis Strange beat Tom Kite in a Monday playoff at Pebble Beach. Strange earned $360,000 for that victory. It was a big story as he became the first pro golfer to win $1 million of official earnings in a single season on the PGA Tour. Ninety-three golfers won over $1 million each this year on the Tour.
Strange totaled $1,147,644 in earnings for 1988, $22,356 less than today's winner of the Tour Championship will be paid.
Tiger has clinched Golfer of the Year, the 2006 money title and two more majors this year. He is on a six-victory run that everyone was hoping to see extended to seven PGA Tour victories in a row at this Tour Championship. That will have to wait until he enters his first event of 2007.
Tiger is extremely intelligent and the best golfer in the world at present. He appears to think out every move he makes -- on and off the golf course.
However, I feel he might have done a better job of scheduling his competitions and appearances over the last few weeks in order to be ready to play in such an important event as the Tour Championship. He simply took all the air out of the Tour Championship balloon.
Next year, the PGA Tour is going into a new, nine-month season, January through September. A point system of play will lead up to a final four weeks of playoff tournaments in New York, Boston, Chicago and the Tour Championship in Atlanta in September.
This earlier finish to the PGA Tour in 2007 should help attract Tiger and Phil, although there still is no guarantee.
Maybe, as John Derr points out, there will be a more successful conclusion to the 2007 PGA Tour because Tiger will fulfill his fans' expectations next fall.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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