January 20, 2009

Is There Hope For The Hope?

It's been going the way of Detroit for some time ... towards extinction. John Hawkins says it's a show worth saving, but it needs attention now

Arnie's the new host, but that won't provide the fix this tournament needs.

Arnie's the new host, but that won't provide the fix this tournament needs.

For all the speculation over this being the final Bob Hope Classic, some knowledgeable golf fans might be wondering if the tournament is really worth saving. Few PGA Tour events have tumbled further or faster in recent years -- Kapalua and Colonial are the only ones that come to mind. There was a time not so long ago when the Hope produced some of the highest TV ratings on the schedule. Nowadays, the weekend rounds aren't even televised by a major network.

The title host's death in 2003 obviously didn't help the Hope's long-term future, but it was the recent departure of Chrysler, the corporate sponsor since 1986, that triggered talk of termination. Finding a replacement in a small market with a weak field and a Golf Channel audience won't be easy, especially in the current economic climate, although the situation is -- one free pun, everybody -- not beyond Hope.

"It's a cheaper tournament to sponsor than most others," says a well-placed source, "They have 384 amateurs to foot the bill if it gets really ugly, and it will."

The pro-am factor has always imparted a good-news, bad-news effect on the event. Unlike next month's shindig at Pebble Beach, the Hope hasn't sustained enough celebrity starpower to brand itself in that mode -- Kevin Costner isn't showing up unless CBS is there, too. At $12,000 per spot, however, those 384 choppers are generating $4.6 million in revenue, which apparently justifies playing five rounds on four courses in the Hope's new six-course rota, one of which many tour pros can't stand.

Got all that? Didn't think so. For a lot of guys, this used to be a great place to start the season: perfect weather, flawless course conditions, 6,700 yards of birdie heaven. As prize money began to increase dramatically -- from $1.5 million in 1997 to $5.1 million this year -- a couple of marquee players, including Phil Mickelson, began asking not to be included in the celebrity portion of the bracket.

Too much was at stake. The idea was to win the tournament, not serve as Joe Pesci's straight man. Mickelson won the Hope in 2002 and 2004 but has skipped the last two. Tiger Woods has never played in the event, at least in part because he was denied a sponsor's exemption many years ago as an amateur. Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Adam Scott -- the list of big names who have gone Hopeless their entire careers is the longer than any tournament on the West Coast swing.

So is it salvageable? Does the tour actually want to keep it alive? Word on the street is that singer/actor Justin Timberlake, whose hands-on involvement with the Las Vegas tour stop transformed it into a Fall Series success, wants a bigger piece of the action and would love moving to the third week of the regular season if the spot became available.

Interestingly enough, Timberlake ditched the 72-hole pro-am format as soon as he slapped his name on the Vegas event, the first of several moves that indicate he means business. After swearing he'd never do another hit-and-giggle at Pebble, JT will return to the AT&T next month, trudge through a few six-hour rounds and sign lots of autographs for the ladies. It never hurts to help the tour if you want the tour to help you.

That said, the same source told me yesterday that the Hope has a "100 percent" chance of surviving but that a move to the Champions Tour is a possibility, which may or may not meet your definition of survival. The right thing to do is to fix it and leave it on the big tour, which prospered immensely from the Hope's popularity before becoming the big business it is today.

No doubt, Camp Ponte Vedra is at least partially responsible for the tournament's downfall. One problem has arisen from the decision to bring tougher venues into the mix and make the Hope something other than a birdie hunt -- it used to take 25 under par to have any chance of winning this event. By bringing the Classic Club into the rota in 2006, the competitive dynamic was altered, the product compromised by what was, more or less, an honest mistake.

The Hope hasn't completely lost its identity as the game's most lucrative putting contest, but it became pretty clear almost immediately that a lot of players despised the new layout. With six courses to fill four spots, the Classic is on the bench this week. Among the old cupcakes, only Bermuda Dunes will be play a role in hosting the 2009 Hope, as if there was something terribly wrong with the world's best golfers shooting a bunch of 64s once a year.

It certainly made for good TV way back whenever, but with the NFL dormant for the first weekend in almost five months, with the tour looking at an excellent chance to attract a decent viewership after horrible ratings the first two weeks, there is no NBC or CBS, there is no Tiger or Phil, and there probably is no hope for the Hope. Not the way they're doing it now.