Fall Finish not helping Heritage, other tournaments

November 2, 2010 

It's interesting how certain realizations or the creation of a particular thought process can arise from the most innocent of comments or mundane of questions.

I was struck by that last week given a response I had to a friend's question regarding whether or not I watched Jonathan Byrd's remarkable hole-in-one to win the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open (did you get all that?) PGA Tour event in Las Vegas two weekends ago.

My answer came fast and with little thought (a reaction some think I have far too often, by the way). "I haven't watched a full hole of golf since the Ryder Cup and I don't plan to any time soon," is what I told my buddy.

Considering the fact that Jim Furyk won the FedEx Cup Championship well over a month ago, it's not an unreasonable response even from someone who enjoys watching meaningful professional golf as much as any other sport. Considering playoff baseball, college and pro football and the beginning of the NBA season, there just aren't enough hours in my viewing day for largely meaningless golf.

Now, truth be told, interest in the final five weeks of the PGA Tour, the self-described "Fall Finish," has been in the basement for years. In fact, the better term for the tour's post FedEx Cup closing would be, "You Keep Playing and Banking, but We're Finished Watching."

Sometimes I think the only real reason for events such as the Viking Classic is to provide some respectable programing to the Golf Channel. Honestly, if I see one more "The Big Break" I'm going to start begging for the creation of the "Housewives of the PGA Tour."

That said, I started to consider my reaction to the question in the context of the uncertain future of the Heritage Classic beyond 2011 and the forces that are causing real concern as to whether the next PGA Tour event on Hilton Head Island will be the last.

Sure, the economy isn't helping. The culture that frowns on "entertainment" spending by Fortune 500s is a big issue as well, and we all know that it's difficult for a region our size to overcome those issues when trying to find a company willing to spend $8 million-plus a year to support a golf tournament, no matter how much charitable giving it yields.

In the face of that headwind, it's not reasonable then to wonder aloud whether the PGA Tour itself is unwittingly working against the health and stability of its tournament partners, including our own Heritage Foundation. More direct to the point, has the PGA Tour gotten too big and watered down the product so much so that tournaments like the Heritage simply cannot survive?

Consider this, the PGA Tour comprised more than 45 tournaments this year. It will have played five events since the official "end" of the season at the Tour Championship played the final weekend of September in Atlanta. The tour also stages four events the week opposite major championships and World Golf Championship competition. Every one of these tournaments require sponsorship to the tune of millions of dollars a year, thus increasing the demand for sponsors at the same time the landscape for them is drying up.

At the same time, the economy has ended significant PGA Tour relationships with financial companies, car manufacturers and other service-related industries that either lack the cash or the internal fortitude to put their names with the events. Whether or not the tour can continue to feature such a long season with so many tournaments (the Fall Finish ends Nov. 14th and the 2011 season opens less than two months later) comes down to dollars and sense. Problem is we all know there is a significant lack of the former and I'm really starting to worry about the latter.

Adding insult to injury, at least from a Hilton Head perspective, the PGA Tour launched a new fall event on Sea Island, Ga., this year with five-time Heritage champ Davis Love III the driving force and accounting firm RSM McGladrey as the benefactor.

When I asked Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot about the creation of the event a year ago, just as the search for a sponsor to replace Verizon was beginning in earnest, he was expectedly diplomatic. Provided a cone of silence, however, I would imagine that most foundation members would express considerable frustration about a new tour event being established just down the coast from our own at the very time a Heritage sponsor is being sought to keep the event alive past its 43rd birthday. I've not asked, but I am assuming.

Any chance that at any point someone in the PGA Tour's Ponte Vedra, Fla., offices paused for a moment and said, "Hey, we got a pretty established event in South Carolina that needs a sponsor. Any chance you McGladrey folks want in on that action?"

From where I sit, it's doubtful at best; never crossed their mind at worst.

Few will argue these are the final months in the fight to save the Heritage and that a successful 2011 event is the final stand for our treasured tournament. If there are no sponsorship prospects when the PGA Tour starts putting together its 2012 schedule early next summer, the sand will have run out. It will not have happened, however, because Wilmot and the Heritage Foundation didn't do all they could to secure a title sponsor.

Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, the same cannot be said about the PGA Tour's involvement in the process. It's not the realization I expected when asked a simple question, but there it is all the same.

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