Two days prior to the start of the Tour Championship, the conclusion of the race for the $10 million FedEx Cup, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem declared his tour was enjoying an age of parity and new leadership.
Yet considering the lack of crossover engagement with sports fans and a still sluggish economy, it's fair to question whether one man's parity is another's stagnant product and whether the new crop of talented young golfers is fighting a headwind that could prove gusty.
In what is becoming more and more the post-Tiger Woods-domination era, the PGA Tour has certainly had its share of first-time winners, emergence of young talented players and unexpected results in the most important of tournaments. Yet at the same time, some of the Tour's most popular players have largely been non-factors in the majors, important non-major events and now at the end of the much-hyped FedEx Cup.
Without Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and other players who dominated the past decade of golf doing much of anything this year, the vacuum has in large part been filled by the likes of Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Chez Reavie.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
A year ago these were anything but household names to most golf fans and haven't necessarily pegged the interest meter the way Tiger, Lefty and the Big Easy have for years. Yet rather than lament the perceived lack of star power on his tour, Finchem points to the parity on tour and the emergence of young, talented Americans and engaging international players as positive signs for the PGA Tour.
"When I go around the country, the first thing I hear from people is, boy, you have a lot of great young players right now, and they're so athletic and fun to watch on the golf course," Finchem said during a Tuesday press conference in advance of the Tour Championship, which starts today in Atlanta. "So we'll see. But I think every indication is that this is the beginning of a long-term trend."
Okay, that's certainly classic commissioner spin, but it is fair to say the competition and talent on the PGA Tour has been on display this summer for anyone paying attention. That youth movement has been further enhanced by the continued improvement of popular younger players such as Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Nick Watney and Matt Kuchar.
Additionally, three of the four majors in 2011 featured first-time winners under the age of 30 in Charl Swartzel, Rory McIlroy and Bradley. The victory by veteran Darren Clarke in the British Open was one of the most popular major triumphs in some time and gave golf a summer shot in the arm.
The unanswered question, however, remains whether the stable of emerging golfers can provide even a fraction of the sizzle Woods and Mickelson have since their respective debuts as professional golfers. The popularity of those players and several others not only pushed up television ratings but brought new sponsors to the sport and drove purses through the roof. At least until the economy finally improves (any day now, please), maintaining that momentum will now fall on the tour's younger talent; a significant burden to say the very least.
"There's a real interest with this number of young players, and I think that sponsors feed off the fans in that regard," Finchem said. "They see the galleries and they see the interest level and they see the television numbers -- and in today's world, if you're spending millions of dollars for a sport you're really studying it very carefully. It's been very interesting."
Considering the players who remain in contention for claiming the FedEx Cup this Sunday at East Lake Golf Club, it will be equally interesting to see how much interest is generated in the Tour Championship, the last significant event of PGA Tour's regular season.
The top five players are guaranteed the $10 million prize with a victory, a list that is led by Simpson and followed by popular stars Johnson, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Kuchar. Reigning Heritage champion Brandt Snedeker stands a good chance of taking the cup with a victory this week as does Watney.
Certainly a victory by any of those players, or an unlikely bid by Mickelson to recover from 14th in the standings to win his first FedEx Cup, would be popular among golf fans. But it's hard saying whether any of those scenarios would draw interest beyond golf fans, considering the NFL is in full swing and Major League Baseball is swinging toward the postseason.
If it does, Finchem might be right that the future of the PGA Tour is in good hands. If not, the hangover of a post-Woods era might just linger longer than the tour would care to acknowledge.