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PGA Tour needs to hype its season opener

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When the Major League Baseball, college basketball and NFL seasons begin each year, they blitz the media like Warren Sapp after a double-espresso. Preview issues line magazine racks at grocery stores. ESPN, FOX, and local news broadcasts constantly bombard viewers with predictions and projections.

Around the water cooler, phrases like "pitchers and catchers report next week," and "the first pre-season game is in exactly 29 days" are muttered with all the excitement of 5-year-old children anticipating Christmas morning.

The new PGA Tour season, on the other hand, typically slides in the back door, grabs a soda from the fridge, and makes itself at home. You don't even know it's there until it asks you where the chips, dip and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue are.

It is golf, after all, a game in which loud noises are unilaterally discouraged. Still, how does a sport with the world's most visible athlete and legions of fans who actually participate in it on a recreational level sneak back onto the sporting radar relatively unnoticed?

Perhaps it's the "silly season" that pulls the game into December and gives millionaires a chance to earn an extra buck or two (million) for Christmas gifts. Or maybe it's because the regular season - which spans from January to October - is simply too long.

Whatever the reason for the lack of opening-day hype, there's a simple solution for starting the new PGA Tour season with a bang: get one of the Tour's new blue chip sponsors to fly one lucky winner and three of his or her closest friends to four different events during the season for a series of all-expense paid golf gorges. The trips would include accommodations, rounds of golf at the host course, all-access passes to the event, tee times at surrounding courses, meals and transportation.

Hold a drawing two weeks before the season-opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua Resort in Maui and have it televised on the Golf Channel. Follow up the next week by flying the winner to Orlando for a live presentation in which he or she selects the four Tour events, places them on a board, and explains why they were chosen. Dub it "selection Saturday," or something like that, and segue the production into a snazzy 2003 PGA Tour preview show.

Now we're rolling with a 2-Ball putter.

And as the architect of this veritable marketing machine, I feel that it is my responsibility to test drive this concept in 2003 and get it ready for production in 2004. Cue camera one, it is time for the selection show. Now, if I only had three friends and four weekends off.

The Mercedes Championships, Kapalua, Hawaii

Sure, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are skipping this annual winners banquet by the sea, Woods due to injury and Mickelson because he's left handed (see explanation in notebook below.) But it is January back in the contiguous 48, and this is Maui, so Happy Gilmore could be in the final group on Sunday and I wouldn't care. The Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, with all its rolling hills and views of the Pacific, is arguably the Tour's most aesthetically awe-inspiring venue. Kapalua is also home to two other excellent layouts, the Bay and Village courses. Throw in the Ritz Carlton and the 36 winners from last year's Tour events, and I am there.

The Phoenix Open, Scottsdale, Ariz.

For sheer entertainment value and surrounding golf course availability, there's no Tour event that even comes close to this duel in the Sonoran desert. The TPC of Scottsdale is the venue, and Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish fashioned one of the better stadium courses on the circuit. With the affordable Desert Course just a pitch shot away, you don't even have to leave the property to play 36 holes. But I would have to skip curfew at least twice in order to play at We-Ko-Pa in nearby Fountain Hills and Talking Stick in Scottsdale. In fact, you could skip the TPC courses all together and still wear yourself out at high end daily fee facilities like Troon North, Grayhawk, WildfireEagle Mountain, Kierland and SunRidge Canyon.

The Masters, Augusta, Ga.

Because I am a golf writer, I can play anywhere, anytime, right? Wrong. Without having won this inaugural PGA Tour contest, I would have had as good a shot as playing Augusta National as the construction worker from Joe Millionaire. Couple points of clarification: I don't care that there are no other serviceable golf courses in the area. Nor am I concerned about the club's ongoing battle of the sexes. This is Augusta, folks, and I'd rather pass on a date with Lara Flynn Boyle than miss this opportunity. Now, if I could just weasel my way into a practice round and a post practice round "round" with Rich Beem.

The Heritage, Hilton Head, S.C.

In honor of Charles Fraser - the reason the PGA Tour has stopped in the Low Country every year since 1969 and the marketing genius behind the emergence of Hilton Head - I'd set my sights on Heritage in April. Fraser died recently in a freak boating accident but his spirit lives on in the lighthouse behind the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links. If the Phoenix Open is a fraternity party on grass, then The Heritage is a 10-year college reunion with spiked punch. The atmosphere is festive, but not rowdy. Tens of thousands of patrons, and some 130 PGA Tour players and their families are shoehorned into an island as wide as the 101 Freeway in Phoenix. The Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus designed course is one of the most unique on Tour, what with its tiny greens, narrow fairways and canopies of live oaks. Sea Pines Resort is home to two other tracks, the Sea Marsh and Ocean courses, and Hilton Head Island is essentially one big resort course.

Mickelson's lame excuse

Mickelson will miss the Mercedes Championships for the second straight year, and his excuses are getting progressively lamer. In 2002, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family and take some time off. In 2003, Lefty is baling because, well, he's a lefty. Sources close to Mickelson say he is skipping the event because Kapalua's Plantation Course doesn't set up well for lefthanded players.

The island's fabled "Kona" winds are also forecast to be howling, and Mickelson rarely plays well in adverse conditions. Playing in the Mercedes Championships is an honor for the majority of the field, because spots are only offered to winners of tournaments from the previous year. Maybe Mickelson should honor his responsibility as a PGA event winner one of these years and grace the tournament with his presence.

More money, fewer sponsors

The 2003 edition of the PGA Tour will feature record purses, despite the fact that four tournaments are still searching for long-term sponsors. The Heritage, Phoenix Open, Greater Hartford Open and the Las Vegas Invitational are on life support this season by way of "bridge" sponsorships that patch together multiple sponsors to keep the events alive until a full-fledged backer can be found. The total purse for 2003 is $220 million.

Tiger in Charlotte?

And speaking of purses, the inaugural Wachovia Championship in Charlotte will have one of the richest, at $5.4 million. Will it be enough to get Tiger to the Queen City? Tournament director Kym Hougham met with Woods and his agent, Mark Steinberg, at the Tour Championship in November. Woods didn't commit to the event, which will be played at the Quail Hollow Country Club on May 5-11, but he did say that he'd sit back down and talk to Hougham in the spring.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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