Perhaps in an effort to stem the tide of negative publicity over the recent snubs of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, the FBR Open released its list of early commitments this year earlier than ever.
It was impressive, with the likes of Davis Love III, Mike Weir, Chris DiMarco and David Toms forming a most fabulous foursome. If this trend keeps developing, tournament chairman Mike Haenel won’t have to worry about being shoved between a rock and a hard place, a.k.a. the Dubai Desert Classic, which falls the same week as the FBR.
For those who have forgotten, Woods, Els, Goosen, and to a lesser degree, Colin Montgomerie, Mark O’Meara and Thomas Bjorn, all have selected Dubai and its bigbucks appearance money. And who can blame them, as those seven- (in Tiger’s case) and sixfigure "bonus’’ checks just for showing up are enticing, along with the gold, diamonds and other posh perks bestowed by the royal family of Dubai.
Going "foreign" rather than supporting red, white, and blue tournaments is the Catch-22 of the PGA Tour. Hey, let’s not forget that professional golf is a contract sport, and each and every player in the world is an "independent’’ contractor.
Haenel, however, sees it slightly different, and who can blame him for looking out for the selfish needs of his event? There is a lot of money — approximately $5 million — on the line for local charities. It only makes good business sense that the host Phoenix Thunderbirds get the best group of golfers possible when they throw their annual party Feb. 2-5 at the TPC of Scottsdale.
You have to give Haenel a lot of credit for not panicking when he heard that the No. 1 player in the world had opted for Dubai over the FBR, dissing the East Valley for a fifth consecutive year. Haenel insisted then, and he has stuck to it since, "That when the time comes, we’ll have another great field, just like we always do.’’
Frankly, we were starting to wonder if Dubai might cut deeper into the talent pool than Haenel and the ’Birds expected. That’s why it was good to see the aforementioned players had signed up early, especially Love, who hasn’t played at the TPC since 2002.
There were ominous signs, like earlier this week when the Dubai tournament organizers released this statement: "With Woods, Els, Goosen, Montgomerie, O’Meara and Bjorn already confirmed, and more big-name stars signing up by the week, the Dubai Desert Classic is expected to sell out before the first ball is struck.’’
There still are some key players that hang in the balance, most notably Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, John Daly, Darren Clarke and Adam Scott. Frankly, it would amount to treason if Singh, a twotime FBR champion, chooses the Middle East over Scottsdale.
Then again, nothing is certain among the pro ranks these days, and while loyalty still exists, it’s not a "gimme.’’ Just look at what’s happened to the season-opening Mercedes Championship in Hawaii, where six of the top 10 players in the world — including Tiger, Retief and Phil Mickelson — will be no-shows. Considering the field is limited to 2005 winners, and the field is only 30-some players to start with, that is a blow of catastrophic proportions.
Even Haenel has empathy for the Mercedes folks.
"They must be beside themselves,’’ he said. "I’ve gotta believe that the Tour reps are calling these players (who are missing) and pleading with them. After all, this is the season of the (television) negotiations.’’
Indeed. It’s going to be even more difficult for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to negotiate another $1 billion contract out of the networks if his stars have become so "independent’’ that they’re AWOL from what is supposed to be a glitzy debut to 2006.
Still, if the FBR gets Mickelson — a slam dunk since he’s the defending champion — and players such as Singh, Garcia, Daly, Clarke, Scott, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard, Fred Couples, Scott Verplank, Fred Funk and Jason Gore, it will be mission accomplished.
"I’m optimistic, but I’m also concerned,’’ Haenel said of the five weeks left for players to sign on the dotted line. "I think we’ll be solid, but I’ll know a lot more in a week or two.’’
While the schedule is working against the FBR this season when it comes to Dubai, it’s also working a little bit for it. By coming the week after the Buick Invitational in San Diego, the FBR can draft on that tournament’s outstanding field, which is expected to be world-class since the 2008 U.S. Open also is slated for Torrey Pines.
Without question, it’s a better fit than following the Bob Hope Chrysler Classics of the past. At the same time, it wasn’t quite good enough to net Tiger, the only real casualty from the FBR’s standpoint.