KAPALUA, Maui » With the Great Recession in full swing a year ago, the future of the PGA Tour was as uncertain as the business world it counted on to cash the players’ checks.
Longtime title sponsors such as Buick, Chrysler, FBR and Stanford Financial were no longer playing partners, leaving tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Co. scrambling for a critical up-and-down.
This week’s season-opening event on Maui was a microcosm of the problems facing Finchem a year ago as he attempted to stabilize this tournament after Mercedes drove off the lot. The South Korean broadcast network SBS stepped in to fill the gap for 2010 before the winners-only tournament landed Hyundai in November.
Finchem held a 20-minute press conference yesterday to discuss a wide range of issues, including how things look compared to 365 days ago.
TODAY’S TEE TIMES
» 10:20 a.m.: Arjun Atwal, Rocco Mediate
» 10:30: Bill Lunde, Cameron Beckman
» 10:40: Robert Garrigus, Matt Bettencourt
» 10:50: Derek Lamely, Jonathan Byrd
» 11: Stuart Appleby, Jason Bohn
» 11:10: Anthony Kim, Heath Slocum
» 11:20: Ian Poulter, Carl Pettersson
» 11:30: Ben Crane, Bill Haas
» 11:40: Ryan Palmer, Tim Clark
» 11:50: Carmilo Villegas, Bubba Watson
» Noon: Adam Scott, Francesco Molinari
» 12:10 p.m.: Hunter Mahan, Graeme McDowell
» 12:20: Justin Rose, Zach Johnson
» 12:30: Jason Day, Ernie Els
» 12:40: Dustin Johnson, Steve Stricker
» 12:50: Matt Kuchar, Charley Hoffman
» 1: Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk
"I think last year at this point there was less certainty," Finchem said, "certainly more concern about the economy and what was happening. There was yet to be an end in sight to the downturn and still a lot of volatility. We had more on our plate to do from the sponsorship standpoint in that environment.
"This year, we have stabilized and the economy seems to be picking back up and we have come through a good, solid year of doing a lot of business in a bad environment."
The tour was also facing the Tiger Woods situation head-on. Last January, no one knew when Woods would pick up a club again and that uncertainty hurt Finchem almost as much as the bad economy. When your star attraction is sidelined indefinitely, it’s tough to convince business partners that all is right with the golfing world.
"We were just into the period of time when Tiger was stepping away from the game, and there was a lot of uncertainty that arose out of that, plus the distraction it created," Finchem said.
"This year, it seems that that is pretty much behind us now, and we can look forward to a good, solid year of golf from him; where he competes, that’s another matter, but just playing and the lack of distraction, that’s solid."
On the local front, Finchem praised Hyundai for stepping in quickly, and with the help of NBC golf analyst Mark Rolfing, this tournament is trying to regain some of its luster lost since moving to Maui in 1999.
Thirty-four golfers will tee it up today in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to start the PGA Tour season. Five players who qualified are missing from the scene, including world No. 1 Lee Westwood, No. 3 Martin Kaymer, No. 4 Phil Mickelson and No. 10 Rory McIlroy. Mickelson is not fond of the tradewinds or the Plantation Course.
The other three top-rated players are not tour members. As a result, they can play in only 10 PGA events. All three decided not to use this tournament as one of those 10. Finchem was asked if there was any movement to make this event exempt from that number, like The Players Championship. He said no.
"The step we took on The Players was all about The Players," Finchem said. "It wasn’t about the rule and it wasn’t about the number of international players playing the tour. We actually are comfortable with the amount of international players we have.
"And then the second thing is that this recent focus on three or four players, particularly as it relates to Europe, does not cause us concern. I mean, we see the need for these players to support the tour in Europe. We feel like a strong European Tour is in everybody’s interest."
But American golfer Steve Stricker has a different point of view. He believes this event is being hurt by that specific PGA Tour rule.
"I think we are in a position as players and tournaments wanting to get the best field for our sponsor, putting on the best show that we can, and get the best field here and I think — I know Hyundai would love to have more players here who decided not to come," Stricker said.
"I think we need to take a look at this one again, this tournament, and at the time, when the talk was about adding The Players Championship, no one really thought about this event in particular I guess. But it kind of makes sense that maybe they should be exempt from this one, too, to get them here."