News & Opinion

Star power propels PGA Tour into another frontier

Tiger Woods, America’s top golf export, helps U.S. tour plant its flag in Japan

It’s a big week for the PGA Tour, which has Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy headlining its first-ever official event in Japan. This isn’t a silly-season shindig or one of those bloated appearance-fee deals named after a tire company in the Far East. We’re talking about a real tournament here, sort of, a limited-field gathering that will award some all-important FedEx Cup points as Camp Ponte Vedra continues to expand its geographic boundaries.

Tiger Woods (left) and Rory McIlroy headline the PGA Tour’s 1st official event in Japan this week.

That skins game featuring Woods and McIlroy earlier this week was, as you might have guessed, an essential component to the Tour’s interest in occupying Asia. You can’t get the big boys to fly across the Pacific unless you provide a certain amount of financial incentive, but because the Tour won’t sanction events that offer appearance fees, you have to get a bit creative. Whereas RBC, title sponsor of the Canadian Open, can get its roster of “ambassadors” (Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and several others) to play in its tournament through a provision in the off-course agreement, the presence of Woods and McIlroy in Japan may amount to a one-time deal.

Nonetheless, the idea of luring premium star power to a prime overseas market is crucial to the Tour’s big picture. We all know that Japan has been a golf-crazed nation for quite a while now. And being the control-hungry, enterprising, not-for-profit (ahem) business that it is, the Tour has wanted a piece of that action for decades. Woods long has been a monolithic figure in Asia, especially in Japan, where the adoring masses never cared about the fire hydrant or his issues with prescription medication.

He is Tiger Woods, American icon, and he sells whatever he wants to sell in an idolistic metropolis such as Tokyo.

If you’re wondering how China and South Korea beat Japan to the starting gate as hosts of U.S. tour events, it’s a simple case of the almighty dollar. Japan’s economic problems in recent years made it difficult for ex-commissioner Tim Finchem and his gang to find a suitable title sponsor. In this case, “suitable” referred to a corporation willing to pay the enormous asking price; the Tour doesn’t spend much time negotiating in the direction known as south.

Besides, there were other willing participants, which is why HSBC, the British multinational investment bank, was the first to climb onboard, in 2010. The China stop was a highly convoluted deal in its first three years, with unofficial money but an official victory credited to a player if he was a PGA Tour member. It made no sense, which might be why Finchem elevated the tournament to WGC status in 2013.

When it comes to leverage, the Tour always has known how to grab a man by the throat without scaring him away. As WGCs go, China is by far the weakest of the four, but that doesn’t matter. The arrangement provided a new frontier, an opportunity for growth, and six years later, the plan to expand has gone as well as anyone could have rightfully expected.

All three Asian events consist of limited fields, meaning none of the three has a 36-hole cut, meaning everybody walks away with a pocketful of loot and a stamp on their passport. It’s a measure taken to prevent American players from going all that distance and getting nothing out of the experience. This amounts to a de facto appearance fee for everyone who plays, which makes CPV hypocritical in its longstanding opposition to pre-tournament guarantees, but then, nobody wearing Tour pajamas lies awake deep into the night worrying about that kind of stuff.

It’s all about what’s best for the constituency, and the middle-class tour pro matters as much as the superstar, at least in theory.

Back in the old days, when Japan was beginning to emerge as a tournament destination and felt it necessary to pay players for their presence, the Tour viewed Asia as a potential evil empire. A man named Lon Fellenz would recruit big names over the course of the year, perhaps for IMG or whoever else had a stake in the international game, which served as a pillar for what would come to be known as the “silly season.”

Fellenz knew how important it was for players to have an enjoyable experience on the trip. With that in mind, he would pack a VCR player for the trip and bring along a large collection of movies, then rent a banquet room at the hotel in Japan so the players could watch them together.

“It got to the point where the Tour wasn’t looking to undermine what was going on in Japan,” a knowledgeable source says. “November and December were time off, and the understanding was that players would go over and make however much money they could make.”

In that sense, not much has changed. This week’s gathering in Japan may be legit, but nobody from Tiger Woods to the last man eligible for the Zozo Championship will walk away empty-handed. The PGA Tour’s three-week Asia Swing was years in the making, but instead of the players making all the money, Camp Ponte Vedra has orchestrated a way to generate its own revenue. Without having to choke anyone into submission, of course.