By Damon Hack
Courtesy of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MARCH 31, 2009 – Last Friday, his one-year anniversary on the Champions tour, Joey Sindelar signed his scorecard, his ball, a second ball, his visor, other people’s visors and anything else that passed across his sunburned face at Punta Espada Golf Club in the Dominican Republic.
No tour does up-close-and-personal like the Champions, with its two weekly pro-ams, dinner parties, quirky personalities and overall good cheer.
On the Tuesday night before the start of the Cap Cana Championship — fast becoming a favorite Champions tour event in only its second playing — 65 of the 78 players in the field crashed the pro-am draw party at the resort’s oceanfront Blue Marlin restaurant.
On Friday night the tour had NCAA basketball Sweet 16 coverage piped into the resort’s Love Bar, where players mingled with resort guests over hamburgers and various libations. More than one player made this keen observation during the week: You don’t see this on the kids’ tour.
The kids’ tour, of course, has Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, which means that the 50-and-over set has to work a little harder to stay viable in these uncertain economic times.
“I would gather that unless this turns into the Great Depression, the PGA Tour senses that [the Champions tour] is an important tool,” says Sindelar, who would finish fourth, two shots behind winner Keith Fergus. “We have fun with our amateur playing partners. For a lot of people who watch golf, we’re the ones they watched — the Prices, the Normans, the O’Mearas. But I also think that the regular Tour understands that the guys are counting on this, on the chance to be a rookie again, to be competitive again and to make some nice money and finish it off. I would think that, for those reasons, there would be a big fight before this went away.”
The worsening economy — in golf and elsewhere — is what prompted 48-year-old Mark Calcavecchia to wonder aloud several weeks ago if the Champions tour will still be thriving when he turns 50 a year from June. He has a right to be concerned. After holding 28 official events with a total purse of $51.2 million in 2005, the Champions tour set a record with a $55.2 million total purse in 29 events last year. Those figures have tumbled this year, to 25 events and $48.9 million in total purses after the Ginn Company in January peremptorily dropped its sponsorship of the 2009 Ginn Championship.
“[Calcavecchia] has every reason to be worried, as he should have every reason to be worried about the PGA Tour, the NFL, NASCAR, whatever,” says Mike Stevens, the president of the Champions tour. “Businesses are making very difficult decisions, and individuals are making difficult decisions about whether they want to spend money on a pro-am or keep it in a savings account. This is the fourth economic downturn in my career in golf, and this is by far the most serious. What has a tendency to happen, though, is that companies look to relationships, and relationships sustain business. You go to those people you have the best relationships with, with the hopes of continuing the business.”
While PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has been encouraging players to do what they can to grow the game — being accessible, strengthening bonds with sponsors, playing more often — “those are things we’ve been doing [on the Champions tour] for a long, long time and have had great success with them,” Stevens says.
He cited as an example the Toshiba Classic in Newport Beach, Calif., where Stevens invited two executives from Mitsubishi Electric (which sponsors the tour’s season opener) to dine with him. Stevens asked Tom Kite, Loren Roberts and Jeff Sluman if they would join them.
“They said, Of course we will,” Stevens said. “I didn’t have to pay them. I didn’t have to negotiate with an agent. They just understood.”
Says Sluman, “Not throwing anyone under the bus on the other Tour, but it’s totally different here. I believe that when Mike says everybody kind of gets it out here, they do. Some guys on the other Tour don’t.”
Stevens and most of his players say that the Champions tour operates fine with a schedule of 25 to 30 events, claiming that more than 30 would dilute the strength of the fields. Anything below 25, however, would be a concern, he says.
To that end, Stevens points to Cap Cana as a blueprint for future forays into the international market for the Champions tour. Though the tour recently halted negotiations to hold tournaments in Los Cabos, Mexico, and Calgary, Alberta, Stevens says Cap Cana is the inspiration behind the tour’s possible expansion into South Korea, where Jack Nicklaus is involved in a design project that could become part of a new business hub in the Pacific Rim. (Nicklaus also designed Cap Cana’s Punta Espada.)
“If we wouldn’t have had the success here last year in Cap Cana, it would have made trying to do the initiative in Korea that much more difficult,” says Stevens.
This year at Cap Cana, Greg Norman’s presence created the biggest buzz, but it was a mixed blessing. Even as he drew hundreds to his gallery in his run-up to next week’s Masters, the Cap Cana Championship was the 54-year-old Norman’s first nonmajor start on the Champions tour, and it does not sound as if he will be grinding out there anytime soon.
“People still want to come out and see some of the great names, but it’s a bit of an adjustment for me,” Norman said after opening with rounds of 73 and 72. He would go on to finish 36th, 12 shots behind Fergus. “I’m not used to seeing golf carts rolling down the middle of the fairway. It’s a bit of an adjustment seeing the tees so far up the hole, it doesn’t play the way you practiced it. But this has been the first one I’ve played, so I have to make some adjustments somewhere along the line. I think the viability of the [Champions tour] is going to be O.K. They might have some problems going forward, but I don’t think you’ll see them lose it.”
Norman wouldn’t commit to more appearances on the Champions tour other than coming out “in dribs and drabs.” But even with no Tiger and dribs and drabs of Shark, the Champions tour has survived and even thrived for nearly 30 years. Television ratings for the tour on Golf Channel are up in ’09, and the channel’s senior vice president of programming, Tom Stathakes, says the cooperation, personality and accessibility of Champions tour players have been huge in an economic downturn.
During Golf Channel’s Cap Cana coverage, in a nod to the Dominican flavor of the week, the players even offered their pick of who’s the better baseball player, Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez. (The Cardinals’ slugger prevailed.)
It was one more example of golfers giving back during competition. No one, as Sindelar said, has a crystal ball and knows what the future of any sport looks like. Views of the swirling Caribbean would have to do.