PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- In years past, the Players Championship was the PGA Tour's biggest party, a celebration of yet another massive year of more -- more money, more corporate sponsors, more moves into lucrative golf ventures.
During this self-congratulatory orgy of accretion, staged annually the golf course that PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman had carved out of a swamp back in 1980, the most pointed question used to be whether the Players Championship qualified as one of golf's major championships.
"Now people are asking all these questions about the officials, the commissioner, the Golf Digest article," said Mark O'Meara, No. 3 on the PGA Tour money list. "It's very different. But these things have to be brought up and looked at."
The party goes on, but the tones are muted. Hanging on the horizon are thunderheads that threaten to rain on not just this tournament, but on the entire tour. Professional golf once seemed impervious to the disruptions of strikes and lawsuits and threats of palace coups.
But now the governing body of the most lucrative pro golf tour in the world finds itself in the midst of all of the above.
The field that began play here at the TPC Sawgrass today is the best this tournament has had. It might be the best field any tournament anywhere has had.
And yet much of the focus has been on:
* The threatened strike by the field staff, a group who set up, run and officiate at the golf courses where the PGA Tour plays. It was settled, finally, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, when a collective bargaining agreement was signed.
* A recent series of articles begun by Golf Digest, the largest golf magazine in the world, containing allegations of a variety of improprieties on the part of the PGA Tour in its dealings with players, sponsors and tournaments.
* A $100 million lawsuit by Karsten Manufacturing Co., makers of the popular Ping clubs. The suit has evolved from a highly technical discussion of V grooves vs. U grooves to a power struggle between Beman and Karsten Solheim to a test case on whether a sport has the right to make the rules governing play.
Standing in the midst of the storm is Beman, 53, who has been responsible for much of the growth -- and critics say many of the problems -- that the PGA Tour has experienced in his 19-year tenure. Beman, whose salary of $1.5 million a year also has
become a bone of contention, has taken hits from sources that previously would have been unthinkable.
"In my opinion, Deane should be replaced," said Tim Simpson, a player who has been critical in the past.
But Beman remains unswayed by the turmoil. It has been said and written that he thrives on conflict. Perhaps. In answer to the question posed by Golf Digest on the cover of its April issue, which asks "Can Beman Survive?" Beman had a terse and simple reply:
"I'm not going anywhere."
Neither, it seems, are the problems facing him. The latest struggle with the field staff was a minor irritant in the larger scheme of things but also illustrates Beman's brinkmanship. For a man who helped raise PGA Tour purses from $8.1 million in 1974 to more than $50 million this year, settling a labor dispute involving such small numbers should have been simple.
Instead, it took nearly nine months and a threatened work stoppage for the tour to offer an $8,000 raise on starting salaries (to $40,000) and a 35-percent raise (to $100,000) for senior officials. Nine months ago, that would probably have pre-empted the strike talk. But quickly acceding to the officials' demands would have been out of character. The Golf Digest article, for all the inaccuracies alleged by the PGA Tour in a 12-page rebuttal, had this right: Beman hates to lose.
That same doggedness has served him well in negotiations with corporate sponsors. He has developed a number of creative ways to extract money from corporations, not the least of which is the corporate underpinning of television broadcasts. That means that the tour, and not TV, lines up the bulk of commercial air time on broadcasts. He has developed a network of Tournament Players Clubs, which took in $28 million last year.
Most of the PGA Tour players support Beman. After all, he has lined their pockets. More than 100 have become millionaires on the PGA Tour, the vast majority of them during his tenure. But many are concerned that, should the tour lose the Ping suit, millions of dollars will be coming from their pension fund.
For all the negative publicity, for all the vagaries of the economy, the fact is that the PGA Tour's assets are more than $200 million. When Beman took over in 1974, they were less than $1 million. Will Beman survive?
"I should offer to resign because Golf Digest printed information that was slanted, erroneous, incomplete -- a great art of omission -- and attempted to be damaging to the tour?" Beman said, rhetorically. "I should respond to that by resigning or thinking about resigning?"
The party goes on, but the celebration is tempered by doubt. The one thing that remains certain is that none of those doubts belongs to Deane Beman. Unless there are some very big bombshells that have yet to be dropped, Beman isn't going anywhere.