Knocking the PGA Tour has been so fashionable for so long that, just for a change, it might be interesting to ask how such a dull enterprise continues to flourish so powerfully.
As spring turns to summer, those who occasionally incline their heads toward the world of golf make some disturbing discoveries. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino don't win much any more. Tom Watson's about had it too. In fact, saplings have grown into trees since these guys did much on what could be called a regular basis.
This comes as a shock to some nervous systems. Especially when coupled with the realization that about half the best golfers in the world aren't Americans.
The conclusion, among those who pay casual attention, is that something awful must be amiss with American golf. Since the PGA Tour is American golf, the Tour naturally comes in for its annual buffeting about the head and neck.
There is, however, a contrary point of view, although it is too cheerful and temperate to cause many brawls.
Maybe the PGA Tour is doing fine.
Perhaps the reason pro purses have grown from $18.5 million to $52.5 million in the last seven years is that lots of golf fans -- many of whom play the game -- know that the PGA Tour still offers the best brand of golf in the world.
When the Senior Tour, or the LPGA, or the European Tour or the Asian Tour wants to pat itself on the back, what does it do? Compare itself to the PGA Tour, of course.
The Senior Tour's been a spectacular success story. In a decade, purses have gone from zilch to $22.5 million. Last season, Bob Charles, that smooth lefty, won $725,887 and Orville Moody pocketed a sum that Old Sarge probably couldn't even fathom himself: $647,985 in one year -- almost twice as much as his career earnings on the Tour.
But even the Senior Tour heroes are a little embarrassed when their product is compared to the regular Tour. This spring at Bay Hill, Palmer said flatly, "There's no way we'll ever approach the regular Tour."
And the Seniors shouldn't. Their Tour is a wonderful, friendly golf sideshow, played for a limited, devoted audience. But when you push the tees forward 500 yards, then mow the rough but let the greens grow a little to save the old boys' nerves, you've got a product that's almost as much great marketing as it is great sport.
Yes, it was nice nostalgia to see Nicklaus, Player and Trevino in the same final threesome at the PGA Seniors. But the weekend's regular Tour event -- going head to head with the legends -- got better network TV ratings.
Also, it's exciting to see Nicklaus finish fifth at the Masters at 50 or to watch Ray Floyd, at 47, come so close to winning. But, don't forget, you had to look a long way down the scoreboard at Augusta to find the rest of the senior stars.
What the PGA Tour has is depth. The Seniors have a half-dozen hugely popular names, including Chi Chi Rodriguez, and some late bloomers like Charles and Mike Hill. But that's it.
The LPGA, European and Asian Tours are in the same boat. The women limit their schedule so that all or most of their dozen legitimate drawing cards can appear and provide a good show. Once past the top 10 Europeans, you don't even get an Ian Baker-Finch for your quid.
The regular Tour, however, is far less dependent on its elite. And there is, once more, a true and definable Tour elite. Last season, Payne Stewart, Paul Azinger, Greg Norman and Mark Calcavecchia were all in the top five money winners (with more than $800,000). Lo and behold, all four are in the top five again this year! That's almost unheard of. For a decade, the money list has been golf's musical-chairs headache with few repeaters in the top 10, let alone the top five.
At the moment, Calcavecchia and Stewart are the reigning champions of the British Open and PGA. And Norman, despite his star-crossed record, is probably a bigger crowd favorite than Watson, Player or Trevino ever was.
The Tour also has two other true stars -- Curtis Strange, who has won back-to-back U.S. Opens, and Tom Kite, the leading money winner in the history of golf and the 1989 player of the year with three wins and $1.3 million in cash.
The proof of the PGA Tour's quality and overall strength may be this week's Kemper Open at the TPC at Avenel. The tournament ought to be a bomb. Except for Seve Ballesteros, in a rare American appearance, and Kite, the field is lackluster. The next biggest names you can sell are Scott Hoch and Craig Stadler. Of this year's top 12 money winners, none are coming to the Kemper, as of now. Only three of last season's top 15 money winners have signed up.
Yet the Kemper Open probably will attract 100,000 fans and a decent TV audience. So what if Tom Byrum won in 1989 and Morris Hatalsky won in 1988? The Tour has achieved the luxurious position of being able to glide on its reputation for a few years. The old Kemper at Congressional was a premier Tour stop. The panache hasn't quite worn off yet.
The no-longer-new stadium course at Avenel seems to be working out quite badly. The single and sufficient proof of this is that the Tour can't beg, borrow or steal a top-level field. When the prize money is right ($1 million), the city is big and beautiful, the date isn't a problem and you still can't get your own players to show up, there's probably only one answer left: the top players think the course is ugly, unfair or both.
The Kemper was in a fair fight with the Atlanta Golf Classic the week before and the Western Open the week after. All three have the same purse. Atlanta, Washington and Chicago are all big-time cities. With the U.S. Open beginning on June 14, the Kemper actually was in the best time slot of the three.
But only the rank and file of the Tour are coming to the Kemper. Mostly the rank, actually. Must be the course.
A decade or two ago, this might have created a sponsor crisis for the Tour. Not now, apparently. Golf is so entrenched as a hot sport and the Tour's audience tends to be so loyal, that the Kemper Open will probably have a couple of years, at least, to solve its image problem -- either by improving its exotic, tricky, barren-looking little track or by getting Congress to pass a special tax exemption for pro golfers who compete in Potomac.
If you tried to sell a product like this Kemper Open on the Senior, Ladies, European or Asian Tour, you'd take a financial bath for certain.
This week in Washington, the Kemper will probably draw huge crowds at top dollar. And, if Ballesteros and Kite are both on the leader board come Sunday, the PGA Tour may even be thanked for putting on such a wonderful show.