The jewel of the West Coast Swing - Pebble Beach
They're still going to throw money around like it's some kind of bailout during the next couple of months on the so-called West Coast Swing. The highlights: seven weeks, $39.8 million, new tax write-offs. The downside: Enjoy the dough, gentlemen, because the line in this business model is starting to flatten out like an episode of 'House.'
This week, it's all about Kapalua and the Mercedes-Benz Championship, which has got everything going for it, except the top four-ranked players in the world (Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington), a network TV deal, good ratings, something other than a carmaker for a sponsor and a good week on the schedule (this one's so early, it's almost last year).
You certainly can't say anything bad about the golf course, because it's scenic and tough when the wind blows, and the waist-high sugarcane sure has an appetite for golf balls.
But just as certain as the leadoff event of the year deserves a better hand, the Mercedes is sort of typical of the problems facing the West Coast portion of the tournament schedule.
These aren't exactly new situations, but lump them all together, again, and they don't look so good.
The top players don't play enough. The courses (with exceptions such as Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Riviera) stir few emotions. The sponsors, some of them anyway, could be in a rough patch.
Not so many years ago, there was a perception that the PGA Tour season really didn't kick off until the Florida swing. All that changed once Woods became a regular in the January-February hit parade and showed up at Kapalua, Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera; and the title sponsors stepped up to the plate and increased the payouts by bunches -- thanks to encouragement by the PGA Tour. The stories were great. Mickelson won early, so did Ernie Els, and Woods, of course. David Duval shot a 59. Even the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic enjoyed a brief run as some sort of kingmaker, when in back-to-back years, Mike Weir and Mickelson won in the desert and then at the Masters a couple of months later.
The good old days, that's what they were, but the Hope isn't the same place anymore. It replaces golf courses like light bulbs, which is why Mickelson no longer includes it on his schedule, even though he's won the thing twice. And about those courses. The Hope thought it was a great idea to accept the gift of the Classic Club from the Berger Foundation and it was such a great idea, it lasted exactly three years. The course was recently returned to the foundation. What was the main problem? They built the tournament's host course in a drafty tunnel on the Coachella Valley floor, a great place for windmills, sandstorms and testing the aerodynamics of jet airplanes, but ill-suited for golf. The players hated it, Mickelson foremost among them.
Arnold Palmer, who won the first Hope 50 years ago, is coming back this month to serve as honorary host, and that's a nice touch. Palmer replaces, at least in title, comedian George Lopez, who was unceremoniously dumped after tournament officials were somehow shocked to learn that Lopez tends to track toward, well, edgy humor, even though that's been his act his entire career. Lopez had many fans among the players, including Weir, who isn't going to play in the celebrity field to make his feelings known.
The Buick Invitational is fine, except for the fact that Woods isn't likely to play and also that Buick may be shifting it into reverse as far as its involvement in pro golf. Actually, that's part of the greatest areas of slippage on the West Coast Swing. Five of the seven tournaments are sponsored by either auto manufacturers or wealth management/investment/financial companies -- and you've probably all caught up on how they're doing these days.
If Woods doesn't come back Tucson and the Match Play Championship, which starts the week of Feb. 25, it would mean that the No. 1 player in the world will have played a grand total of one West Coast Swing tournament the last two years. Sure, everyone wants Woods in his tournament, but the fact is that Woods is playing fewer events, not more, and no matter the coast you're swinging from, that's not good news. The West Coast variety could use some positive vibes. Maybe the prize money will make everybody feel better. Something had better work, or even Lopez couldn't make it funny.
Thomas Bonk writes regularly for Golf Digest Digital.