THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - A new era in golf begins in two weeks, and it might expose an old problem.
The tour has been trumpeting its new slogan in advertising campaigns over the last month, gearing up for the new FedExCup that tees off Jan. 4 at the Mercedes-Benz Championship. But this big launch in Hawaii's Kapalua resort might fizzle without its biggest rocket.
“I haven’t really looked forward to that,” he said one week ago, and by that he meant he was more concerned with finishing 2006 than where he would start 2007.
Asked a third time Sunday afternoon after he won the Target World Challenge, Woods opted for sarcasm.
“I’m going to play every event next year,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. “I’m not taking any weeks off.”
Tiger Woods left California for the mountains to spend a week on the slopes with his family, then said he would figure out his plans for 2007. He has missed the season opener only twice, in 2003 while recovering from knee surgery and last year to spend time with his dying father.
What might the reason be this year?
Citing fatigue probably won’t go over well, because Tiger Woods caused a stink by skipping the season-ending Tour Championship. And his overseas schedule at the end of the year included only 14 rounds in China, Japan, Hawaii and California (although there was that side trip to Dubai to launch his design company).
Meanwhile, there are sleepless nights for tournament officials in Kapalua, knowing that even the spectacular views of Maui in January are not as appealing to TV viewers without Woods in the picture.
And imagine the consternation at PGA Tour headquarters.
Top officials are all going to Kapalua to kick off a campaign they have dubbed, “A New Era in Golf.” The FedExCup is a yearlong competition in which players earn points each week. The top 144 qualify for four “playoff” tournaments at the end of the year, with the fields whittled down until the top 30 arrive at the Tour Championship with $10 million (deferred money) for the guy with the most points.
There will be no need to explain the system, because they will be busy answering a more important question.
The next question: Where’s Phil?
Masters champion Phil Mickelson hasn’t played at Kapalua since 2001, and while he doesn’t move the needle as much as Tiger Woods, they are two most popular players in golf.
It was no surprise, then, that PGA Tour officials declined comment when asked whether Woods’ missing the Mercedes-Benz Championship would be the biggest rally killer since ex-Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne was healthy.
Woods has given no indication which way he is leaning, and he might not know until he gets out of the snow. He was asked over the weekend what would go into his decision on playing Kapalua.
“It’s practice, preparation,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready to play, simple as that.”
So here’s how it shakes out. Tiger Woods can either take two weeks off to ski and then practice for the Mercedes-Benz Championship, or he can take five weeks off and return at Torrey Pines to defend his title in the Buick Invitational.
Should he play? Yes.
Woods was largely responsible for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem revamping the regular season to make it shorter and more compelling. And while the world’s No. 1 player is singularly responsible for a $6 million purse considered routine, he needs the PGA Tour as a platform for his worldwide success.
In other words, it’s time to give back.
Woods has spoken freely about the end of the FedExCup, and he said in an interview last month he plans to play them all. But while the tour believes the FedExCup to be the greatest invention since steel shafts, Woods only cares about four tournaments a year — those would be the majors, not the playoffs.
“That’s the trick, the end of the year,” he said. “You get inundated with tournaments. It’s about trying to play and prepare for the big events ... but have enough for the season-ending events. It’s going to be six out of seven, seven out of nine (including the Presidents Cup). It’s going to be hard on all the guys.”
He also said that “I can see myself playing all of them,” although made no secret that Westchester (Barclays Classic) is his least favorite of the courses. He has played it three times as a pro and never finished inside the top 10.
The broader message is that not even a shorter season with the FedExCup can get Woods to play more. It must be tough for the tour to ask a corporate title sponsor for $8 million a year when it can’t guarantee the guy who can help them earn a return on the investment.
Woods has never played more than 21 times a year on the PGA Tour, and only once has he played 26 tournaments around the world, including the silly-season stuff. But he wasn’t the first guy who chose this formula, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
“It’s tempting to play too much,” Davis Love III said. “But you remind yourself that Jack (Nicklaus), Greg (Norman), Tiger ... they win all their tournaments by playing less. Tim (Finchem) doesn’t like that argument, but it’s true.”
A few years ago, two caddies for players among the top 10 in the world were in a hotel bar talking about how their guys were playing too much. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Woods.
“He plays just the right amount of tournaments,” one of the caddies said. “When he takes a break, he still has an itch to play. But when he comes back, he’s hungrier than ever.”
With this “new era in golf” about to begin, the tour has never been more concerned about Woods’ appetite.