Rush to riches hits golf world

November 22, 1994|By Larry Guest | Larry Guest,Orlando Sentinel

For the last couple of months, I've repeatedly bragged on pro golfers for keeping their feet on the ground, maintaining a healthy perspective, while pro athletes all around them were self-destructing in an orgy of greed.

Silly me.

Along comes something called the World Golf Tour, grandly and prematurely unveiled the other day by "commissioner" Greg Norman and Fox-TV Sports. This has the smell of a palace coup, a takeover of the asylum by the wealthiest of the inmates who are proving that baseball and basketball aren't the only ones who don't have a sense of when enough is enough.

Some of my "sensible" golf tour stars, it seems, aren't satisfied with two mansions and a jet and enough flashy cars to fill a parking garage.

Or is it ego that is driving Norman and a few pals to go out and create a World Tour where they'll have their own rules and won't have to suffer the indignity of being paired with John Inman or some fawning CEO with a 14 handicap?

Whichever, they're toying with slaughtering the golden goose (read: PGA Tour), or, at the very least, plunging golf into the same sort of headless anarchy that plagues tennis.

Armed with a promise of $25 million in rights fees from Fox, Norman is touting an elite tour that would feature select fields of 40 household names, $3 million purses, $600,000 winners' checks, no cuts and $30,000 for last place. That last gem would serve as an appearance guarantee, which the U.S. tour expressly and wisely prohibits.

Although Norman says he doesn't want to damage the PGA Tour in any way, his World Tour, by its very nature, would do just that. Many of the eight tournaments would be played opposite PGA Tour events, thus compromising the gate appeal and TV pull for those events. Additionally, each time a PGA Tour star played in a World Tour event, you can be sure that's one more PGA Tour appearance off his ever-shrinking competitive calendar. The pros just aren't going simply to add eight tournaments to their schedule.

With so many stars already limiting their Tour schedule to leave room for lucrative, end-of-year, made-for-TV gadget events, many PGA Tour fields have limited marquee appeal. That problem would escalate if, say, Corey Pavin trimmed his 24 PGA Tour appearances this year to 16 or 18 next year to cash in on the World Tour.

Tour rules require a member to enter a minimum 15 events. Nick Price played in 19, Tom Kite 23, Davis Love 28, Fuzzy Zoeller 19. The last full season they were healthy, Paul Azinger and Phil Mickelson each played 24. Take those and other gate attractions out of Westchester and New Orleans and Memphis and guess what sponsors and TV networks are apt to do.

The first voice of reason to emerge in this sudden firestorm came from usually glib Peter Jacobsen. "We need to learn from other sports," he cautioned. "Greed has ruined baseball and hockey, and it is well on its way to ruining basketball."

Price, Norman's close pal and presumably a potential regular on a World Tour, lamented that Norman impetuously rushed all these plans to the public before meeting with Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to explore ways the new venture could co-exist with the PGA Tour. Naturally, Finchem bristled at the news, vowing he would withhold the releases PGA Tour members need to play in competing events.

Perhaps that rule could not withstand a court challenge in today's right-to-work environment, but its fall would certainly undermine a tour that has had the strength to tell John Daly to clean up his act and the financial clout to rise from $17 million in total purses to $53 million in the past decade.

Norman has mined about $8 million from those official purses, more than that from unofficial and foreign events, and even more -- in excess of $10 million per year -- from the endorsements that came his way as a result of fame built largely from the PGA Tour.

Perhaps the PGA Tour has been remiss not to create a few special "world" events in cooperation with the other top tours, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to this Norman notion. Perhaps that will now happen.

But until then, the stars of the U.S. Tour would be wise to keep dancing with the lady that brung 'em.

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