Marc Carlisle: When pro golf goes the way of American Idol
How many documents, how many purchases, absolutely, positively have to be there overnight? Precious few, I would imagine, other than pints of O-negative blood needed across the country to save a life. Almost nothing that you and I do in our work-a-day lives requires us to spend $15 to overnight a document. When I last closed on some real estate, I noticed in the itemized estimate of costs three separate $15 charges to overnight documents. The nice clerk thought I was joking when I said I wouldn’t pay it. The Fedex slogan “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight” is a costly corollary to the maxim that “work expands to the amount of time devoted to it”. The reason, in this case, that real estate agencies and title companies wait until the 59th day of the 60 days allowed to prepare and deliver the documents I need for my closing is because they can wait until the 59th day and then charge me extra to overnight the documents.
This week, professional golf swings into Palm Beach, Fla., for the Honda Classic where 12 dozen white guys, nearly all of them millionaires, will compete for $5.5 million in prize money, of which the winner will take home $900,000. To some, the Honda deserves to be called a classic, a staple of professional golf’s Florida swing for thirty five years. To the cynic, the Honda is just another television vehicle to sell advertising, an event that began in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic on a different course, and that has moved every four or five years to a new course with a new title sponsor, none of which makes the event a classic. Classic or not, the tournament, like most other professional golf tournaments, has become a local institution with a waiting list of volunteers to help run an event that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for local charities. There’s a waiting list for the pro-am event on Wednesday, amateur golfers hoping to pay five thousand dollars each to play inside the gallery ropes with one of the pros, in full view of tens of thousands of their neighbors who paid good money to watch a single day of the tournament if the company they work for hasn’t paid tens of thousands of dollars for a hospitality tent somewhere on the course.
But overwhelming local support has nothing to do with the success or failure of a professional golf tournament. Pro golf depends on television ad revenues to pay prize money that has ballooned by a factor of five over the past dozen years, thanks to the marketability of one supremely talented and driven African-American mega-millionaire. To keep growing those ad revenues and the prize money, professional golf has got to deliver the television ratings. Among pro golf events only four generate good ratings, the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship which together comprise golf’s majors. The rest of the year only a few golfers watch televised golf, and non-golfers rarely make the crossover to watch pro golf in the same way as folks who have never dribbled a basketball swell the ratings for college basketball. But this year, pro golf hopes you’ll think of the tournament not only as the Honda but week seven of the Fedex Cup, a 37-week build-up to one final episode where the millionaire with the most success week after week will collect an additional $10 million. It’s a thinly disguised marketing ploy designed to attract the wider television audience that made American Idol and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? ratings bonanzas.The future of professional golf rests on the success of the Fedex Cup and finding a wider TV audience. In October, pro golf will visit Fresno, Calif., to play an event without a name on a golf course with grass on only two holes and a clubhouse as yet unbuilt because the ad revenue potential and sponsorship dollars are greater than what’s available in areas with longstanding events on established golf courses such as Denver. Happily, the future of golf, as a competitive sport or a game for amateurs, has nothing to do with either pro golf or the Fedex Cup.
I learned how to play golf in third grade, when my dad sent me off for group lessons at the local muni armed with a cloth golf bag, a sleeve of balls, and an amalgam of clubs that he’d put together from the assortment of clubs in the garage. Today, I remember nothing of what the pro, a Rhode Island transplant with a cackling laugh, taught me about how to swing the club. But I do remember what the pro taught me and my friends about the traditions and the history of the game, its etiquette and rules so that years later, even when I play only a little or poorly during summers when I’ve logged hundreds of hours on a bike instead, I’ve always think of myself as a golfer first. Golfers don’t need televised golf because they can play golf, and because they play golf they love competition, and when Fresno and the Fedex Cup fade away, pro golf will return to golfers. Until then, I’ll have time to play more golf, a very pleasant prospect.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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