January 6, 2008

This Mercedes' Warranty Has Expired

Ron Sirak takes a look at what's wrong with the season opener and how to fix it

There are three words the PGA Tour should listen to and learn from: "Pitchers and catchers." No sooner is the last out of the World Series made than the true baseball fan is calculating how many days it will be until pitchers and catchers report for spring training and the new season starts to appear on the horizon. If there is one thing the Mercedes Championship proved it is that the tour needs to move the start of the season back in order to whet the appetite of both the fans and, perhaps more importantly, the players.

While the FedEx Cup did an extremely wise thing by moving the Tour Championship out of the heart of football season and into September, it did not so much create a longer off-season for top players as it did extend the lucrative Silly Season. And let's face it, the big names are always going to back up the armored truck and open the doors to the vault when free money is available. Who's to blame them?

Phil Mickelson took advantage of the post-Tour Championship period by picking up a couple of seven-figure appearance fees in Asia. And Tiger Woods hosted the Target World Challenge in December, visited by 15 other of the top players in the world. And what impact did that have? Michelson and Woods both skipped the Mercedes and the Tiger tournament had a better field than the winners-only kickoff to the 2008 PGA Tour season. This year the first event of the year came even sooner than usual, with the field on hand New Year's Eve.

With all due respect -- actually with exactly the respect due -- Nick Watney and Daniel Chopra lost in my house on Thursday night to Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. The Iowa caucus was more compelling -- and better played. Friday I went out to dinner and a movie during prime time (and if you haven't seen "Juno" do it) and Saturday night NFL football won the battle for the remote -- I am, after all, from near Pittsburgh. On Sunday I watched because I have to write this and, well, there is always the danger the final 18 holes could produce the greatest finish in the history of tournament golf.

Not to worry, that was not the case. The battle down the stretch between Chopra and Steve Stricker that resulted in a four-hole playoff victory by Chopra made me yearn for a Chris Dodd withdrawal speech. Heck, it even made me long for those days when the Steelers used to have an offensive line. Somehow it was not a great comfort to toddle off to sleep knowing that Chopra had qualified for next year's Mercedes Championship.

Two things are needed to fix the Mercedes. First, start the season the week between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl. This year that would be Jan. 24-27. There is no football that week. They moved the Tour Championship because it couldn't compete with regular-season football, but then try to go head-to-head with playoff football and college bowl games with the start of the season. Makes no sense.

Secondly, let's talk about the strength of the field at the Mercedes Championship. The 31 players at Kapalua included nine who were ranked outside the top 100 in the Official World Ranking: Paul Goydos (105), George McNeill (115), Chopra (120), Mark Wilson (124), Charley Hoffman (130), Watney (137), Fred Funk (157), Brian Bateman (157) and Joe Ogilvie (184).

The Mercedes had 11 of the top 32 in the Official World Ranking while the 16-player Target tournament had 13 of the top 32. An event half the size of the Mercedes had more highly ranked players. The days when the lure of a free week for the wife and kids at a luxurious resort were enough to entice the top players to cut short their holiday season and start the new competitive season are gone. For the best players the price tag for their time is much steeper than that.

Yes, it is bad luck for the tour that those guys ranked outside the top 100 all won tournaments in 2007 while Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia did not, and thus were not eligible for the Mercedes. But there is a way to avoid that dilemma. Start the season with a World Golf Championship event and make the field the top 32 from Official World Ranking. That still won't guarantee that Tiger and Phil will play (though moving the tournament to the third week of January will help), but it will mean that Els and Garcia can get in if they want to. The season needs to begin with a bang, not a bust.

Absence, the saying goes, makes the heart grow fonder. Push the Mercedes Championship back a few weeks until the fans -- and even the players -- really are yearning for it. And while no one will ever say it is easy to win a PGA Tour event, and while maybe there is still room for a winner's only event on the schedule, it is not the way to start the season. The Mercedes deserves to have a luxurious field that has fans' mouths watering for the start of the season. By the way, pitchers and catchers may report on Feb. 14. And Tiger and Phil first go head-to-head Jan. 24 in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. Now that's something to look forward to.

Golf World Executive Editor Ron Sirak is the author of the best-selling books:

•: Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How Golf54 Can Make you a Better Player

• The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice