International Affair

Was the death of Denver's Tour stop an aberration, or a foreshadowing?
February 19, 2007

It was creepyquiet last Friday morning at Castle Pines Golf Club. Jack Vickers, the club's81-year-old founder and president, stared out a clubhouse window atsnow-covered fairways and greens. There was no 18th-hole grandstand, no giantleader board and no throng of sunburned spectators with cardboard ticketsdangling from their necks. ¶ "The community is really going to miss thisthing," Vickers said, referring to the International, the quirky, classyand ultimately undervalued golf tournament that the onetime oil baronestablished 21 years ago at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The day before, atthe Denver Athletic Club, Vickers and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem haddelivered the bad news: The International, unable to find a title sponsor, wascanceled, and Denver's spot on the 2007 Tour calendar--the first week ofJuly--was up for grabs. Did the International have to die? Vickers thought not.But as he turned away from the window, he considered a bleaker landscape thanthe one outside. "There's a sense of greediness in the air," hesaid.

TheInternational, held in August, had a rakish charm, a certain je ne sais quoi.It was the only event of any stature to be played under the modified Stablefordscoring system. The mountain platform made shots fly farther and producedglorious sunsets. The pros didn't like the way the peaks played afternoonpeekaboo with violent thunderstorms, but they raved about the Castle Pineshospitality. Since the turn of the millennium, however, pro golf has changed.It is now accepted, for instance, that there are two kinds of Tourevents--those with Tiger Woods in the field and those without. (Woods, who lastplayed in the International in 1999, holds the key to television ratings. Inhis absence the International's ratings have sagged to around 1.8 points from a'98 high of 4.1.) It is equally clear that the market for televised golf issaturated. When the International debuted in 1986, only 34 Tour events wereshown on television. Now every round of all 46 tournaments is televised.Vickers, a decorous gadfly with a propensity for straight talk, has pressedFinchem to address the problem. "We're ignoring the law of supply anddemand," he said at Castle Pines. "People are sick and tired of lookingat golf. The ratings prove it." Flirting with blasphemy, Vickers proposedthat the Tour simply stop televising lower-echelon tournaments. "Now youstart to tighten up the market, and your advertising is worth something,"he said.

The Tiger problemis not so easily resolved because Woods can't possibly satisfy the demand forhis services. But Vickers thinks Finchem should discipline star players whowillfully skip certain venues year after year, weakening the fields. "Ifthat happened," he said, "this crap would stop."

Vickers went toFinchem last year with a make-or-break plan to save the International byputting up a Tour-record $20 million purse with a $10 million first prize, butthe commissioner was strangely unresponsive. Finchem was stalling, it turnedout, because the entire Tour schedule was about to change with the advent ofthe new FedEx Cup points race, which has its own $10 million payoff. Vickers,in turn, shocked Finchem by rejecting the Tour's offer to move theInternational to late August or September as one of the three high-profileelimination tournaments leading up to the Tour Championship. That placementwould probably have drawn Woods and two-time International champion PhilMickelson back to Denver. More recently Finchem offered to subsidize ascaled-down version of the International this summer, to give Vickers more timeto find a title sponsor. Vickers's answer was the same: no.

Vickers insistedon Friday that the September date was no good because "golf can't competeagainst football. NFL exhibition games get a rating of 5, 6 or 7 versus a 1 or2 for golf." The subsidy offer was even less attractive because he wouldhave had to sign a note for the loan amount, "and I wasn't going to run theclub into debt." It wasn't until last week, though, that Vickers andtournament director Larry Thiel folded their hands. The end came whennegotiations with a potential title sponsor, believed to be Ford, broke on theusual fault line--the prospect of woeful TV ratings.

At the pressconference Vickers had sprinkled pixie dust on Denver reporters, saying,"Hopefully this is not the end of the International. When time andconditions are right, I think that we'll be back here." Now, however, heconceded that it was probably wishful thinking. If anything, he saw histournament as the canary in the coal mine--the first to fall off the perch, butno different from a dozen other Tour events suffering from Tiger DeficiencySyndrome. "If something isn't done," Vickers said, "you're notgoing to have a Tour. Right now it's a one-man show."

And that man, hecould easily grasp, is not Jack Vickers.

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PHOTOTODD BIGELOW/AURORAPIQUED The end came after a 21-year run at Castle Pines.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)