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Lots of cash, little fanfare

The Tour Championship brings the rich together, but not much else matters.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 1, 2001


The intentions were well-meaning, and for much of the Tour Championship's existence, they have been achieved.

The idea was to provide players and fans with a reason to pay attention to golf after the PGA Championship, the last major. In 1987, the PGA Tour established a Tour Championship, offering a big purse and no cut to the top 30 money winners.

But as the long, official season comes to a close this weekend, it won't exactly end in style. The Tour Championship will bring together the richest of the rich players who will compete to get richer. Little else will be determined.

And that is not all the tournament's or tour's fault. The man who is responsible for so much good in the game has rendered this marquee event meaningless.

Tiger Woods is about to win his third consecutive PGA Tour money title, and nothing that happens at Houston's Champions Club will change that. Woods also has clinched the PGA of America's Player of the Year Award and is likely to be bestowed with a similar honor by PGA Tour players. And he has all but wrapped up the Vardon Trophy for best scoring average.

At least last year there was some intrigue as Woods attempted to win his 10th event of the year and had a chance to surpass $10-million in official earnings for the season. And two years ago, Woods won the Tour Championship in an emotion-filled week, just days after the death of Payne Stewart. Woods finished the season with three consecutive victories.

But factors other than Woods have served to make the Tour Championship just another big-money event -- specifically, all the other big-money events.

A $5-million purse isn't what it used to be, not when three official World Golf Championship events offer that much money. Not when the Players Championship offers $1-million more. And not when several regular tour events are inching closer.

"I think it's lost a little bit from when the purse was so much more than everything else," said Clearwater's John Huston, who did not qualify for this year's Tour Championship. "There is so much money that it doesn't have quite the meaning that it used to."

"It's getting lost in the shuffle," Bradenton's Paul Azinger said. "It's losing some of that elitist stature. Certainly, it's the hottest players on our tour going in there.

"It's to the point now, though, where if you don't make it but come really close, you'll (still) make a million-and-a-half dollars. It's not like you lost an opportunity to have a really good year by missing the Tour Championship. Before, you had a chance to have an unbelievable year on the money list if you got in the event. The guy who finished 31st or 32nd felt pretty bad. Now, I don't think he feels that bad."

Azinger wanted to make the Tour Championship, but earning $1,509,130 without a victory and finishing 33rd takes away some of the sting. And if he chose, he could have teed it up in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, a tournament in Jackson, Miss., for those not in the Tour Championship.

"I don't think it's bad that a guy has an opportunity to play in an opposite tournament," said Azinger, who won the tournament in 1992. "But it doesn't help the elitist value of that particular event, which I think they were initially trying to achieve."

When Tom Watson won the first Tour Championship in 1987, he captured a tournament put in place to bring the top players together at the end of the year.

First, it offered a purse considerably more than regular tour events. And with no cut and a guaranteed minimum (now more than $80,000), it offered a nice incentive to qualify.

In fact, the Tour Championship used to be criticized because its purse was so much greater than other events. Some believed it held too much weight in determining the final money list.

At least the PGA Tour saw the error of its ways and rescheduled one of the World Golf Championship events. In each of the past two years, the American Express Championship was played in Spain the week after the Tour Championship, which made it relatively meaningless.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said that was a mistake, and the tour should play its final event in America. So the American Express was moved.

"All those things have diminished it somewhat," Tom Lehman said. "It's still a great tournament. It's still an honor to be there. But having the event opposite, then the years where there was a tournament after it. ... What were we thinking? It was crazy.

"It definitely has prestige. People recognize it as an elite event. It will always have that. But we need to get it back to the way it was."

How? Someone needs to step up to challenge Woods, with the money title, player of the year, Vardon Trophy still up for grabs heading into the Tour Championship.

It could happen, but not this year.

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