Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lefty Is Right

We've all had a pretty good laugh at Jim Furyk's expense. He's the pro golfer who missed his tee time at the Barclays pro-am after the battery on his cell phone died (he'd used the phone as an alarm clock).

But the episode exposes a serious flaw in the way the PGA Tour does business. When Furyk failed to show for the 7:30AM shotgun start, he was DQ'd from the Barclays tournament itself. That's a serious matter, because the Barclays is part of a big season-ending series of tournaments that lead to the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. Furyk was in 3rd place before his goof; now, he could fall as low as 19th.

Suddenly at issue is a PGA Tour rule aimed at preventing the pros from blowing off the Wednesday pro-am events. These hit-and-giggle "tournaments" are a big part of the Tour's marketing-and-money machine. Amateurs pay as much as $5000 to join a four or fivesome: one pro and three or four "ams", playing a best-ball round (with full use of the amateurs' score handicaps).

You can imagine how much a guy like Tiger Woods looks forward to staggering around the course with a crew of hackers. There are many stories of churlish behavior on the part of the pros: barking at amateurs to hurry up or play better. Worse, some pros have been known to give the eager amateurs the silent treatment--18 holes' worth.

A few years ago, the Tour imposed a rule requiring that pros who skip a pro-am be disqualified from the weekend tournament. The idea was to keep the PGA's money-and-marketing machine rolling: a fully-subscribed pro-am can generate well over $1 million in proceeds for charity, helping burnish pro golf's image.

Furyk's disqualification may be a punchline for comedians, but his fellow pros aren't laughing. Phil Mickelson, for one, is outraged. Lefty thinks the rule is, well, stupid: "I cannot disagree with it more. I have no idea how the commissioner let this rule go through. It's ridiculous."

Part of Mickelson's dismay is the inherent unfairness of a rule that only applies to the pros who have slots in the pro-am. In the case of the Barclays, that was 72 pros out of a tournament field of 125. It's refreshing to see a star like Mickelson stand up and speak out; he could easily have laughed Furyk's mistake off since it didn't impact him.

My colleague John Madden has no sympathy for Furyk; his view is that a pro who makes a commitment to play in the pro-am should be held to it. I agree with John--but only to a point. Punishments are only valid when they're proportionate and relevant. It's hard to see how depriving Furyk of the chance to play in the Barclays (and also deprive paying customers and TV viewers of the chance to watch him play) serves anyone well.

The PGA Tour needs to re-think its pro-am rules. Find a way to incentivize the pros to show without creating the sort of nightmare scenario Jim Furyk is enduring because he overslept.

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