January 7, 2008

The PGA Tour's Big Breakup In The Big Apple

The Buick-turned-Barclays has been an exercise in uneasy compromise, awkward concession and underlying tension.

• Letters: Dear Westchester CC

• Barclays Leaving Westchester

Last year's Barclays featured something I had never seen at a PGA Tour event: walking paths reserved exclusively for members of the host site, in this case Westchester CC. I figured it was some weird indulgence added for the FedEx Cup Playoffs, then headed over to the clubhouse and discovered the lower level of the locker room no longer was available to the players.

That wasn't a big deal because there was plenty of space upstairs for the tour pros, but both non-accommodations were humorous reminders of the strange and strained relationship between the tour and the club. From aggressive on-site parking demands (Westchester members apparently don't do the shuttle bus thing) to a request that the adjacent East Course remain open during tournament play, the Buick-turned-Barclays has been an exercise in uneasy compromise, awkward concession and underlying tension.

Those walkways didn't get much traffic -- attendance at the tour's first-ever postseason tilt teetered between sparse and embarrassing. The greens were in lousy shape, the world's best player was absent, and without Tiger Woods around, the nation's largest metropolitan market had a perfect excuse for ignoring pro golf's playoff pilgrimage. As turkeys go, the Big Apple laid an egg.

Having wiped the yolk off its face, PGA Tour headquarters informed Westchester Jan. 7 that it wants to terminate its six-year agreement with the club and move the Barclays to Ridgewood CC in northern New Jersey. In a written follow-up two days later, the tour offered a $1 million buyout of the contract. I wouldn't describe the tone of the correspondence as accusatory, but it does mention shortcomings involving numerous aspects of the operation -- matters ranging from corporate-hospitality areas to the half of a locker room.

It also cites the difficulties that came with shifting the Barclays from mid-June to late August, feeding off the notion that perhaps 50 percent of Westchester's 1,300 members don't want a tour event anyway. There's something funny about reading a document on PGA Tour stationery that includes the line, "We believe this is a very fair proposal [because] it will return [to the members] their facilities in the prime time of the year and not interfere with their enjoyment of the club for the many weeks leading up to and through the tournament."

Not to complicate things, but if Westchester members can park 50 yards from the pro shop, put on their golf shoes next to Jim Furyk, play the East Course and jump behind Phil Mickelson in the buffet line, how much interference are we talking about?

Feeling more than a little jilted, club president Philip Halpern quickly dispatched an explanation/protest missive to his fellow members, saying, "We are deeply disturbed by the manner in which the PGA Tour has dealt with us." On Dec. 11, Halpern received a list from the tour outlining changes needed to improve the tournament. Not 10 days later, according to Halpern's letter, plans to take the Barclays to Ridgewood and play it there this August already had gotten serious.

Halpern also claimed the PGA Tour demanded "total six-week access" and "the virtual exclusion of our entire membership during tournament week." Those are outrageous requests even by the tour's somewhat overbearing standards, although it is easy to believe that it might have thrown a couple of impossibilities onto its wish list just to discourage Westchester from continuing the partnership.

I've never been bashful about throwing the red challenge flag when the tour blows a call or tries to bully some overwhelmed constituency, but this particular squabble requires no further review. After 40 years and some excellent tournaments, Westchester should take its million and go back to sleep. A membership evenly divided is not going to provide the support or muster up the ambition necessary for an undertaking such as this. Hosting a tour stop is a hassle. A ton of prestigious clubs aren't interested, but there will always be plenty that are.

Halpern expresses "surprise and deep disappointment" over the snub, but the 2009 Barclays already had been awarded to Liberty National GC, an ultra-grand links estate bordering the New Jersey side of the New York Harbor. The tour's long-term plan was to develop a rotation of venues in the New York area, so he should have seen this coming. And while we're at it, shame on the PGA Tour for signing a six-year deal with the most apathetic club on its roster, a place where one disagreement follows another and the crowds seem to get smaller every year.

Since the inception of the FedEx Cup format, the tour was committed to holding its postseason tournaments in the largest markets. After one rotten experience in the Big Apple, however, it's safe to say Frank Sinatra was only half right. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere -- but that doesn't mean you can make it anywhere once you're there.