The world championships of America
AP Golf Writer
DORAL, Fla. (AP) – On his way to the practice range Tuesday at Doral, Padraig Harrington stopped to sign autographs for three fans. One was from Puerto Rico, another from Colombia, the third from Peru.
So at least it sounds like a World Golf Championship.
And there is little doubt that events like the CA Championship look like a World Golf Championship, with 19 countries represented in a field of 68 players.
But there is no getting around the dateline, which is strictly American – Arizona, Florida, Ohio. The PGA Tour, which is the managing partner of these world events, now can point proudly to another WGC that is held each fall in Shanghai, although it’s hard to recognize the HSBC Champions when the PGA Tour still doesn’t count it as an official victory.
“That’s inside baseball,” commissioner Tim Finchem said in a recent interview. “What’s important is what the fans see, and they see tournaments designed to attract all the best players in the world. And by and large, that’s what they’ve done.”
To that point, the WGCs have done well entering their 12th year.
What continues to disappoint, however, is how these world championships remain concentrated in the United States.
They once traveled to countries like Spain, Australia and Ireland. Momentum began to slow when the all the WGCs were held in America in 2003, and it didn’t help that one of them was played on a new golf course located so deep in the woods that it was either in northern Georgia or southern Tennessee, maybe both.
This is the fourth straight year the original three WGCs are in America. And they aren’t going anywhere soon.
The title sponsorship at Doral expires this year, and there is no indication Computer Associates will renew. That would seem to be a ripe time for this WGC to travel abroad, except that Finchem says the tournament is tied more to the TV contract than a sponsor contract. The network television deal is through 2012.
“I think we’re a little bit away from that question,” Finchem said. “We’re not going to make any changes until we’re through ’12. We have a television schedule to meet. What happens after ’12 with the WGCs is a function of a variety of factors.”
Ideally, the tour could release Doral from its WGC status and return it to a full-field event that it had been since 1962. The Blue Monster once bustled with activity from the first ray of sunlight until darkness, with 144 players split up into morning and afternoon tee times. Under the WGC structure of a limited field and no cut, the 68 players tee off in a span of two hours.
The WGC event then would be free to move. And without a new title sponsor, it might do that.
It just won’t go very far.
Even if CA doesn’t renew its sponsorship, or if the tour can’t find a replacement, Finchem said this WGC event will stay in the Eastern time zone of the United States.
“We don’t see any reason to move right now,” he said. “It meets our television requirements and air times.”
The potential for these World Golf Championships living up to their name could come after 2012, and the Olympics could be the catalyst. Harrington is among those who believe South America – Brazil, in particular – could be the next big growth area in golf.
The Irishman went to Brazil in 2000 when the European Tour had consecutive tournaments. He lost in a playoff to Roger Chapman in Rio de Janeiro, then won the following week in Sao Paulo.
“It is an untapped market for golf,” Harrington said. “South America is the next big growth area.”
The Nationwide Tour just finished its first tournament in Colombia, and Finchem indicated more tournaments could follow to help build interest ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
“We will be looking for some opportunities to play some PGA Tour, Champions Tour, some golf in Brazil leading into ’16 to create some interest in that country, particularly Rio for sure,” he said. “I can’t tell you what form that would take. But we definitely want to play.”
Finchem has mentioned taking the Presidents Cup to South America in 2015. Argentina is among countries interested, although that might not move the needle in Brazil.
“It could be a World Golf Championship one year,” Finchem said. “It could be just to play a winter event. There are a number of things we can do, but we need to do some stuff.”
The sooner the better. Golf was voted into the Olympics for 2016 and 2020, but it faces another vote in 2017 to determine whether it stays beyond two games. The sport essentially has one shot to show it’s worth keeping, which means it desperately needs a good tournament, a strong gallery and a solid TV presentation.
“We’re playing essentially in a fledgling golf country,” Finchem said. “We need galleries from one of two sources – either people who live in Brazil who can become golf fans, or people who are coming to Brazil for the Olympics. That would be a broader percentage of golf fans, but there’s all kinds of stuff going on.
“We’ve got to build some interest in Brazil,” he said. “To do that, we need to do a number of things. And one thing is to play.”