Weak fields early in the year is not a new phenomenon. Recall that it used to be said that the PGA Tour season was began at Doral.
The PGA Tour was concerned enough that in 1998 it attempted to bolster participation in West Coast events with one of those money giveaways to which few pay attention other than the eventual winner (now it's the season-long Kodak Challenge). It called it the King of the Swing.
Bank of America agreed to kick in $300,000 to the purse of each West Coast tournament (including the two in Arizona and the one in Hawaii) and award $100,000 to the player who accumulated the most points in the events. Doubtful it had any notable impact.
The difference now is that meager participation early on comes in the midst of a roiling economy from which the PGA Tour is not immune (hence the Bob Hope Classic having been played last week without a title sponsor).
Even could it get away with it, the PGA Tour should not have to legislate participation by denying conflicting events releases that players to play overseas. Instead, the more prominent among its membership ought to step up and show some leadership by acknowledging the problem and doing their own small part to help alleviate it.
-- John Strege