The PGA Tour tournament near Dallas was first played in 1944, had as its first three champions Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan and last week served to memorialize Nelson, who died last September. Yet only four of the top 15 in the Official World Ranking showed up. This week's Wachovia Championship is only the fifth edition of the North Carolina tournament and 30 of the top 35 players will be on hand -- including all of the top 12. How does one tournament with such a rich history lose its clout while a newcomer rapidly becomes a can't-miss stop on tour? Location, location, location. And a few perks don't hurt either.
The main location problem for the EDS Byron Nelson Championship is a result of losing its spot immediately before the Colonial, which is now called the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Having the two events 30 miles apart on consecutive weeks was enticing to players looking to save on travel time. This year, there are three events scheduled between the Nelson and the Colonial. But the real reason for the rise of the Wachovia has more to do with its strengths rather than the weaknesses of any other events.
Locationwise, the Wachovia this year comes the week before the Players Championship, which is making its debut as a May event after abandoning its spot in March. Not only are big names going to sharpen their skills at the Wachovia in preparation for the more than $8 million purse at the Players, but it's also a mere puddle jump from Charlotte, N.C., to Ponte Vedra, Fla., giving the Wachovia high marks on the convenience scale. But the Wachovia had caught on as a top tournament even before the Players moved to May.
First off, the players have been wowed by the Quail Hollow Club. The course, designed by George Cobb in 1961, was redesigned for the Wachovia by Tom Fazio with stunning results and has been maintained in immaculate condition. It is a traditional, tree-lined, undulating track with great greens. Quail Hollow is both pleasing to the eye and demanding of the players. Three of the four winners it has produced -- David Toms, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk last year -- are major championship winners. The last three Wachovias have been decided by playoffs, including in 2004 when Joey Sindelar defeated Arron Oberholser.
Beyond the beauty of the course -- and the surrounding countryside -- there are the many perks thrown the way of the players. The courtesy cars are Mercedes Benzes and the wives are taken by charter plane on shopping trips and mansion tours. The players and their families get first-class resort treatment. And it also doesn't hurt that the caddies are also treated royally this week. Again, that's not to say the treatment is lesser anywhere else, but when you add all the factors together -- good date, great course, spectacular perks -- it's a difficult combination to beat.
But one of the real attractions at the Wachovia Championship is something most fans would never even consider. Each pro-am has only two amateurs in the group. That means threesomes -- one professional and two amateurs. Normally, the pros get saddled with four amateurs. Just do the math on how much time -- and aggravation -- the smaller pro-am groups save. It is truly on pro-am days that the pros earn their money. These are crucial days for the promotion of the tournament and for generating revenue. And they can also be very demanding days physically and psychologically when you are trying to get ready for a tournament.
At the Kraft Nabisco Championship, an LPGA major, the pros are paired with four amateurs -- twice in a two-day pro-am. So the pros at the Wachovia get away with about four-and-a-half hours of amateur schmoozing, compared to about an hour and a half longer in other PGA Tour pro-ams -- and about a day longer at the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco. That carries a lot of weight in terms of getting the big names to pencil in your event on their dance card.
And then there is the kind of added perk Tiger Woods gets this week at the Wachovia. One of his two pro-am partners will be Michael Jordan, one of his buddies. So instead of having to deal with four strangers, Tiger gets MJ and another handpicked rich guy to minimize the annoyance factor. And that's sort of what the Wachovia has become -- a tournament so well-run the players handpick it as one of the stops they will use to meet the required 15 events needed to keep their PGA Tour cards.
It could well be that part of what is going on is that some PGA Tour events are being victimized by the success of the tour. Simply put, prize money has increased so much that players can afford to play fewer events. A sampling of 11 top-ranked players (Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, Toms and Singh among them), found that in the 2000 season they played in an average of 27.9 PGA Tour events. In 2006 they played in an average of 23.4 tournaments. The total prize money was $163.6 million in 2000 compared to $256.8 million last year. Think there is a correlation between the two sets of numbers?
To give Woods credit here, money has never dictated his schedule; convenience has. Tiger has played about the same number of events every year. In fact, in calculating the average events played, the 2005 numbers were used for Woods because he missed so many events last year because of the death of his father. Mickelson is more typical of the top players. He now plays about two fewer events a year than he did a half-decade ago.
But who is to blame these guys? Who among us would not work fewer hours if we could, using that time to instead be with our families or doing other fun activities? The challenge for the PGA Tour is to try to have greater control over which events the big names play -- or more important, which ones they miss. And that is the real reason behind the FedEx Cup. Its purpose is to funnel the stars into as many of the same events as possible. In the case of the Wachovia Championship, it has worked beautifully. And that two-person pro-am certainly doesn't hurt.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.