When the players of the PGA tour gather in Houston this week, they will have before them the lmost important idea that has grown out of the innovative commissionership of Dean Beman: the concept of a split golf tour. i
Beman calls this dramatic plan to divide the tour in twain -- into a sort of American and National league of golf -- a mere trial balloon. "Nobody sitting at one desk is smart enough to decide (unilaterally) what is best for golf. We are at the beginning of a long debate on the future direction of the game," he said.
Despite this modest disclaimer by Beman, the revolutionary notions that were announced two days ago by the PGA are largely his baby, his best answer at present to all the problems that annoy golf and stagnate its hopes for growth.
What is this split tour that might become a reality by the '84 season? And, more important, what would it do and why does Beman think it necessary?
First, the six or seven most important events of the golf season -- the U.S. Open, Masters, PGA, World Series of Golf, TPC, Tournament of Champions and perhaps one other tournament -- would not be changed in any respect. They are the core of the sport, and, some would say, the only really healthy limbs on the golf tree. The transformations come elsewhere.
Next, all the rest of the tour tournament sponsors -- both the healthy events like the Colonial, Heritage and Memorial invitationals, as well as the weak sisters like the tour's numerous Nowhere Classics -- would be divided into two groups: call them A and B. Each group would play on a circuit of 16 to 18 events. The sponsors would then hold a "draft of players."
"Give us Tom Watson," Group A might say.
"Well, we'll take Lee Trevino," answers Group B.
And so on, until someone is forced to take Morris Hatalsky.
Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and a few other players of interest, who fall into the "Lifetime Exempt" category, would not be affected by this. They could play anywhere and anytime they felt like it.
However, for perhaps 200 of the PGA's 220 fully active players, the change would be important. Instead of having to choose from week to week when and where they would play next, they would be committed, a year in advance, to the 16 or so events on "their" tour.
So what's the big deal? What are the implications of this plan? Why does Nicklaus term it "the salvation of the tour," whereas Watson says he fears it could be "a reward for mediocrity."
"Perhaps most important, this would give us an all-exempt tour," says Beman. "As it is now, we have 80 to 100 players (the rabbits) who travel, sometimes 1,000 miles, for a qualifying tournament on Monday to fight for 20 spots. The ones who don't make it get nothing. That's a tremendous financial waste and human waste.
"We figure it's taking $2.5 to $3 million out of players' pockets (in expenses) and not putting a dime in. It makes a lot of our players into gypsies who can't plan their life in a proper way and don't have the security to develop as players in the way they should."
Instead of having fields of, perhaps, 144 players in an event, as is now the case, the split tour would have two "leagues" with about 100 regular players in each. "Instead of qualifying for the PGA tour and becoming a rabbit," says Beman, "you would qualify to become a regular (exempt) player.
"Next," says Beman, "we could guarantee sponsors who would be in their tournaments far in advance, instead of having them wonder about who's in their field right up to the final weeks and even days before the event. You could promote and market much better.
"As it is now, every darn week we see the same headline story: 'Nicklaus won't be here this week,' or 'Watson won't be here.' The big news is the player who's not coming to your tournament instead of the players who are.
"We don't have to have the entire sport of golf on display each and every week to offer a good show. But we have to find a way to emphasize what we do have, instead of what we don't have.As it is, everything is too haphazard."
The split tour would, according to Beman, have other advantages. The American golf season, instead of being expanded from its current 44 events over nine-plus months, would actually be contracted to just eight months -- from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 -- with the total schedule cutting back to 38 to 40 events. Thus, the PGA, by ending its season with the World Series of Golf, could avoid going head to head with college and pro football, which have made September and early October tournaments a dollar-poor headache. Also, a couple of fading midseason events (perhaps the Magnolia and Tallahassee) could mercifully disappear.
The average tour pro, who now plays from 25 to 30 events, would play no more than about 25 a year in the U.S.
The total annual prize money would stay about the same, but because more rabbits were munching more of it, the top players would have less cash to split among themselves. Why would the vital top 60 players like this plan?
First, they would have September, October, and even November to play on the foreign tours in Europe, Japan and the Far East, where cash "guarantees" are allowed for glamorous U.S. names. Also, during the American season, players would have eight to 10 days of "vacation" when they could either rest to stay mentally sharp, or, more likely, join with the tour in organizing lucrative clinics around the country.
"A 'name player' could use that time off to play in pro-ams and exhibitions at a rate of $3,000-$4,000 a day, five days a week for eight to 10 weeks a year," says Beman. "Under this system, any reasonably well-known player could set up a schedule where he could double his own tour prize-money earnings during his in-season 'vacation.'
"Just as important, the PGA could coordinate these clinics and exhibitions in a way that would really help promote grass-roots interest in golf."
The obvious and instant complaint against this new system is that those tournaments that are not as famous as the Open and Masters would all be ground down to the same "mediocre" level. As Watson says, "Week tournaments would be stronger and strong ones weaker."
Beman's answer is simple: "Wouldn't that be better than our current system of haves and have-nots?"
It will probably take the PGA players the better part of two years to finish chewing the fat on these new concepts. They are not yet ideas whose time has come. Golfers, accustomed to total personal freedom, will have to bite their tongues to accept Beman's notions that require greater tour controls over their nomadic lives; yet, it is hoped, they will beget greater order and coordination within the golf world.
In the long run, the day of the split tour will probably arrive -- odd as it may seem today. And when it does come, it may well prove to be for the general good of golf.