Thursday, June 30, 2011

Great course, great city struggles for great field

Location isn't always everything when it comes to attracting a strong field.

It's as much about the calendar.

The AT&T National gets under way Thursday, and it appears to have everything in its favor. For the second straight year, it is being played at Aronimink Golf Club, a course so highly regarded that there is reason to hope for a major. It is located about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, one of America's top sports town with an affinity for golf.

About all that's missing are some of the top players.

For the first time since this tournament began at Congressional in 2007, it doesn't have a single player from among the top 10 in the world ranking. Part of that is because Tiger Woods — the former host whose foundation still benefits from the charity dollars — is no longer in the top 10 or even playing at the moment.

But there are other reasons, most of which have to do with the time of the year.

The Fourth of July weekend was a big hit outside Chicago when the old Western Open was played. It was the biggest event between the U.S. Open and the British Open, and a tournament that most PGA Tour players entered. Then again, that was when PGA Tour players ruled the world ranking. Now it has a distinctive European flavor, not only at the top but throughout the top 50.

Most of them are either playing the French Open this week, or taking a week off before the Scottish Open, the final tune-up before the third major of the year. Bubba Watson decided to go to France, too, which was only strange in that he said he planned to return home before going back to the British Open.

The highest-ranked player at Aronimink is Nick Watney at No. 15. The other three from the top 20 are past champion K.J. Choi, Hunter Mahan and Jim Furyk, with Adam Scott at No. 21 also in the field.

That leads to another question: What constitutes a strong field?

The ultimate measure is the world ranking, and the AT&T National (along with the French Open) will be assigned points once the tournament starts on Thursday. This tournament has nine of the top 50 in the world. Considering that it's a PGA Tour event, the AT&T National at least can boast 27 of the top 50 from the FedEx Cup standings.

And of the 25 players who have won tour events this year, 11 of them are at Aronimink.

Then again, is a ranking more important than appeal when it comes to selling tickets? Is it more attractive to have a player from the top 50 in the world, such as Ben Crane or Brandt Snedeker, or a three-time major champion like Vijay Singh? Anthony Kim is barely on any list the way he's been playing, but his appeal is likely greater than someone like John Rollins.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he looks at fields differently from the public, and he used star power as an example.

"Somebody asked me the other day, 'How much does a player who finishes 125th on the money list earn outside of official money?' It depends on who the player is," Finchem said. "If Freddie Couples was 125th, it would be a very different thing than a lot of other players. So those things move the needle in terms of your interest among the media, enthusiasm of the television announcers, how the fans are going to react to it, how tickets are sold.

"All those things are affected by a range of players, not just the players who happen to be in the top 20 or top 30 or top 50 in the world ranking. So we look at it different ways."

The AT&T National has a short history of strong winners — Choi and Kim when it was at Congressional, Justin Rose last year at Aronimink, giving him two wins in three starts.

Among those outside the top 50 is one who is sure to attract a decent crowd. That would be Sean O'Hair, who makes his home in the Philadelphia and joined Aronimink a few years ago. He was getting plenty of club and hometown support during the pro-am, despite his gaffe at the Red Sox-Phillies game Tuesday night, when he threw out the first pitch and was just a little bit off target.

"I think I hit the camera guy right in the head," O'Hair said. "The worst thing about it, I didn't even ask how he was doing. I was so nervous. But it was fun to be there. I wish I would have thrown a little bit better pitch, but it's not what I do for a living."

O'Hair is trying to get his golf game back together, as is Jim Furyk, who is slipping into a deep slump in the year after he won the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize. Furyk, who grew up closer to the other side of Pennsylvania, has only two top 10s this year, and both those were a tie for ninth. He has missed the cut in his last three starts, the first time that's happened since the end of the 2004 season when he was recovering from a wrist injury.

Furyk has been around long enough to understand that ranking and form can go in cycles. Even though there are only nine Americans among the top 20 in the world, he is not pessimistic about the future.

"I think if you look at the under 30s, you look at Hunter Mahan, you look at Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler ... I'll take those four," he said. "You pick four players under 30 from any other region, I'll take my four, and I'll be quite happy with where my money goes."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can Phil Mickelson Overtake Tiger As World’s Top-Earning Athlete?

Phil Mickelson faces a monumental hurdle at Congressional Country Club this week in Bethesda, MD.

But if he climbs that mountain, he’ll also close the financial gap on his long-time rival Tiger Woods. And in the process, further elevate his historical status within the game of golf.

Make no mistake, Lefty isn’t hurting for money. Forbes recent rankings of the world’s wealthiest athletes pegs Mr. Mickelson as the 5th wealthiest athlete, earning $46.5 million between May 2010 and May 2011. He trails Kobe and LeBron (2nd and 3rd on the list, respectively) by less than $7 M, and he only trails tennis great Roger Federer by $500,000.

But Tiger currently tops the list at $75 M.

As a golf enthusiast, I’ve watched with keen interest as Phil has tried to eclipse Tiger in the world golf rankings over the better part of the last decade. And though Phil now holds a greater world ranking (Phil is 5th while Tiger is 15th), it’s more because of Tiger’s “undoings” than Phil’s “doings”.

What’s interesting from a historical perspective is to see how the financial gap has changed just over the last several years between 2 of the world’s wealthiest athletes and most successful corporate pitchmen.

Using data from Sports Illustrated’s “Fortunate 50″ from 2008-2010, we see these trends:

- In 2008, Tiger earned $128 M versus Phil’s $62 M.

- In 2009, Tiger earned $100 M versus Phil’s $53 M.

- In 2010, Tiger earned $90.5 M versus Phil’s $62 M.

So relative to 2008 and 2009, Phil is gaining ground…though both men have taken hits over the last 2 years for a multitude of reasons.

In Tiger’s case, his injuries have hampered his on-course abilities and thus have made him a less stable investment. But more importantly, his off-course transgressions likely will torpedo his long-term endorsement opportunities utterly. He’s already seen his endorsement take fall from $105 M in 2008 to approximately $70 M in 2011. If not for Nike or Electronic Arts, he likely would no longer sit atop this list.

In Phil’s case, despite his victory at the 2010 Masters for his 4th major championship, his play continues to be too erratic and inconsistent. Though he certainly scores high on the likability scale given his on-course demeanor, Arnold Palmer-like go-for-broke style, perception of being a family man, and the public’s sympathy given that his wife’s and mother’s recent battles with breast cancer.

And in both of their cases, there is no question that the downtown in the economy lessened corporate willingness to invest so heavily in celebrity endorsers. Again, for Phil’s endorsements to slide from $52 M to $42 M in the year after his 3rd Masters suggests that macroeconomic variables were at play beyond his control.

But what is in his control, at least partly, is whether he can shed the label of unlucky loser at America’s golf championship.

Mr. Mickelson has famously finished 2nd a record number 5 times in the U.S. Open with 9 top 10 finishes. Somewhat astounding when you consider that Lefty isn’t the straightest guy off the tee on U.S. Open layouts where the rough can be taller than your children.

His ability to keep coming back and playing competitively in this tournament is both commendable and surprising all in the same breath, but with his 41st birthday coming Thursday during the opening round of the tournament there may not be many more opportunities to achieve glory on a tour that is becoming increasingly deep with young talent from both sides of the pond.

More than closing the financial gap on his long-time rival Woods, a U.S. Open victory would have the short-term impact of renewing the relevance of the Mickelson brand. His current sponsors would be more likely to extend his current deals while new sponsors may line up as well. It would be too good of a story for them not to. A story of the “hard-luck best man” showing the determination and resilience to finally capture his nation’s golf championship.

And the long-term impact would be to further make a case that he belongs in the discussion of the top golfers to have ever played the sport. As it stands now, only 17 men in the history of golf have won more majors than Phil. But a 5th major would throw him in a class with Byron Nelson and the recently departed Seve Ballesteros while shrinking the afore-mentioned list to 12.

In short, a Phil Mickelson U.S. Open victory at Congressional would boost his endorsement earnings in the next year by $5-15 M above and beyond what they would be if he comes up short again. And in the process, push him ever closer to becoming the wealthiest athlete in the world as Tiger’s wealth will likely continue to dip given his recent form.