PGA hopes for Tiger boost, even without Europe’s best

A return to form by Tiger Woods should give the US PGA Tour a boost as television negotiations loom and top Europeans drop United States events, US PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Tuesday.

Woods makes his 2011 debut at the $5,8 million Farmers Insurance Open, played on a Torrey Pines course where he has won seven times before, and comes off a winless 2010 campaign that saw US golf TV ratings dip.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, a rising young star, did not help matters by posting a Twitter message on Tuesday saying he will not play in the Players Championship in May, an event world number one Lee Westwood of England has also said he will skip in 2011.

Woods helped bring golf record prize money by sending ratings skyrocketing when on form, winning 14 majors to put himself only four off the all-time major win record owned by Jack Nicklaus.

A Woods run at the Nicklaus record could produce dramatic television and bring back some fans who fled last season when a sex scandal rocked Woods’ good-guy image and contributed to the first winless year of his 15-year career.

“Tiger out for a big chunk for the first part of the year and then not playing at his normal level had an affect on our ratings,” Finchem said, adding that strong Winter Olympic and American football TV ratings created a “perfect storm” to trim viewership numbers.

‘We can still eat lunch without it’
If Woods does not have a strong 2011 season amid TV contract talks, it could hurt the PGA’s bottom line, but Finchem said he could not estimate how vital it would be for Woods to have a stellar season.

“I don’t know what impact in the final analysis that has,” Finchem said. “Having him return to his competitive level that he enjoyed for 14 or 15 years is a positive thing. There’s no way I could estimate the impact.”

Finchem cited the demographic popularity of golf viewers to certain advertisers and cited the ability to sustain solid revenues in tough economic times.

“That’s why we have continued to grow right through the downturn,” Finchem said. “We would like to have better ratings. We don’t depend on it. We can still eat lunch without it.

“If the economy comes back we are poised to take advantage of it.”

Finchem said he expects more storyline-themed pairings such as Woods and Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines, reprising their 2008 US Open playoff at the same course, at other PGA events in a bid to boost attention.

“It will help our television product, we think,” Finchem said.

‘We would love to have you back’
But the rise of European stars to the top of the rankings and their playing on the European Tour rather than in many US events could hurt, especially as cavalierly as McIlroy revealed his plans in tweets to Westwood.

“I’ve decided no holes at sawgrass is better than my usual 36!” McIlroy said, referring to the players’ home course and his history of missing the cut.

McIlroy spoke of playing a weekend with Westwood, noting, “It will be weird! I’ve never played golf during the weekend of the players!”

Finchem took the lack of Westwood and McIlroy at the US tour’s top non-major event in his stride.

“I’m disappointed but I’m not troubled by it,” Finchem said. “We will have a premier field again. We’re going to have a great tournament. My only message to those guys is you are always welcome and we would love to have you back.”

The underlying concern might be what happens if the game’s greatest stars are all playing in Europe rather than in America and whether or not the US PGA needs to consider making a push to lure more non-US players.

“I believe we have the right mix of international players on the tour,” said Finchem. “I don’t think we need more international players.

“And we need the European Tour to be a strong tour. They have had more troubles than we have had with the downturn. It’s probably more important for the European Tour that some of those players play over there than it is that they play over here.” — Sapa-AFP

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