Revamped schedule under review

MIAMI -- Fans had a tough choice Wednesday morning, with Tiger Woods on one side of the golf course, Phil Mickelson on the other and Vijay Singh bringing up the rear.

The Ford Championship at Doral has 11 of the top 12 players in the world, creating a buzz that has managed to drown out the noise of jetliners descending over the Blue Monster every five minutes.

If only every week could be like this on the PGA Tour.

"It would be more exciting for the fans, and I'm sure the sponsors and TV and everybody, if we did play more often together," Woods said. "The only way you could do that is if we shortened the season."

It's not that simple, although a revamped PGA Tour schedule is again under review.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is studying five models of when to play, where to play, even how much to play in the United States, all of it geared toward negotiations at the end of a year for a new television contract.

"It's time to take a look at a number of parts of the schedule, to see if we can make it more compelling," Finchem said in an interview last week. "Length of schedule is one; where different tournaments are played is another and where we play tournaments is a third.

"I wouldn't want to mislead anybody into thinking that we are on a mission to significantly alter the schedule," he said. "But we are aggressively looking and challenging ourselves in how we are presenting the product."

Finchem did not offer specifics, and it could be that nothing changes.

But Woods and Masters champion Mickelson have been the strongest proponents of shortening a schedule that begins in January and doesn't end until the first week of November.

"We have an 11-month season, and that's too long," Woods said. "There's no other sport that plays 11 months of the year. I think we should end with Labor Day. How can we compete against football? It's not going to happen."

Mickelson considered the schedules of top players over the past 40 years.

Jack Nicklaus rarely played more than 20 events. Tom Watson never played more than 24 during his prime. Woods has never played more than 21 going into his 10th full season. Mickelson played a career-high 26 tour events in 2002, but his new model is to play hard through the four majors and then effectively shut it down.

Woods, Mickelson, Singh and Ernie Els played in the same tournament only eight times last year, four of those majors.

"Most of the top players throughout history have averaged 18 to 22 events a year, and we seem to have 44-plus events," Mickelson said. "The top players play less than half of the events. If we cut our schedule back to 32 events, now we are playing in two-thirds or three-quarters of the events.

"I think that would be an easier sell for television and our sponsors," he said.

But it might be a tough sell for the rank-and-file.

If a shorter schedule brings the top players together more often, that squeezes out several players who have earned PGA Tour cards and might not get many chances to play.

The pecking order for exempt status on tour reaches about 145 players before it reaches those who earned their cards at Q-school or through the Nationwide Tour. Most fields have room for only 144 players.

"If you took two months off the schedule, overall the fields would be better," Jeff Sluman said. "But what is the commissioner's job? His first priority is how many tournaments we can play and how high can we get the purses. It's all about playing opportunities."

Some of the rank-and-file said the way to get stronger fields is for the top players to get out more often.

Tom Pernice Jr., a former PGA Tour board member, has been highly critical of Woods for not playing more and deviating from his limited schedule.

There are 13 tournaments Woods has never played, three of those opposite-field events.

"We have 43 title sponsors, but Tiger thinks we have 18," Pernice said earlier this year. "Right now, Vijay is doing more for the PGA Tour than anybody. Tiger has done a lot for us out there, but I think it's time for Tiger to step up and play some more events."

The LPGA Tour recently adopted a policy that every player must play in every tournament at least once every four years. Pernice wants the PGA Tour to do the same, although that appears unlikely.

The top four players in the world ranking will not get together until The Players Championship. Singh, Woods, Els and Mickelson were at Torrey Pines, although Mickelson was No. 5 at the time.

Els is not at Doral because he is playing in Dubai on the European tour.

But fields this heavy at the top are rare on tour, so the fans in south Florida might as well take advantage.

Mickelson notices a difference, too.

"When you're out on the course and you're making a couple of birdies, you feel like you have to keep pushing yourself to go lower because you know that Tiger Woods is in the field and Vijay Singh is coming on strong," Mickelson said. "All of these guys are pushing to shoot lower and lower scores. And when you're out
there, you feel it."