The Silly Season is dead, and its obituary was sounded on Oct.
24, when the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge convened outside Las
Vegas. Piercing the quiet of a cool, crisp desert morning, the
starter at the Lake Las Vegas Resort announced, "Representing
the PGA Tour, one of the most popular players in golf,
Roooooccccooooo Mediate!" With those words, an era ended.
Born in 1983, with the first glitzy Skins Game, featuring
Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Watson, the Silly Season has always
been a monument to excess, built on star power and fabulous
riches. Only the most glamorous names were allowed past the
velvet rope of these fall exhibitions, and a bottom-feeder like
Mediate knew it. "My dad has watched these Silly Season events on
TV," says Mediate, who has won but four tournaments in his 15
seasons on Tour and cracked the top 30 on the money list only
twice. "He would be like, 'Why aren't you there?' I'd always say,
'Dad, because I shouldn't be there. I don't belong.'"
Mediate's high profile this off-season is emblematic of the
changes rocking the golf world. With the official money season
getting longer and ever more lucrative and Tour-sanctioned
tournaments increasingly far-flung, the top players have, en
masse, come to the same conclusion: Spending their limited time
and energy competing in what now passes for the Silly Season is,
well, silly. Apathy from big-name players has buried one
unofficial money tournament, the Dunhill Cup, and the death knell
is being sounded for a host of others.
After 16 years the $1.45 million Dunhill, an event matching
three-man teams from 16 nations, was laid to rest two months ago
at St. Andrews, and in its final incarnation the tournament was
forced to accept a U.S. team that featured the likes of John Daly
and Larry Mize. (The event should have more star power, if not
star golfers, in 2001, when it unveils a pro-am format that will
cater to the entertainment industry.) Two weeks ago the $1.5
million Franklin Templeton Shootout, a 54-hole team event,
couldn't entice a single player in the Top 15 in the World
Ranking, relying instead on Mediate and his ilk to fill out its
The Sun City Million Dollar Challenge, played this week, was so
desperate to attract players that it made a lie out of its name,
but even the new $2 million first prize generated little
interest. The only Americans to make the long trip to South
Africa were John Huston and David Toms. (Jim Furyk had planned to
play but is still recovering from a wrist injury.) Even the
granddaddy of them all, the $1 million Skins Game, felt the
effects of the Silly Season's withering. With no other takers,
the Skins--which is about phony backslapping and corny joke-making
as much as it is about golf--was forced to ask Vijay Singh, golf's
version of the tragic mime, and Colin Montgomerie, not exactly a
fan favorite in the U.S., to join Fred Couples and Sergio Garcia
at Landmark Golf Club in Indio, Calif. As a result the Skins
generated a 2.3 overnight rating on Saturday and a 2.6 on
Sunday--the lowest numbers in Skins history.
Mark McCormack, whose company, International Management Group,
has lorded over the Silly Season since its inception, is among
those ruing its demise. "The public wants to see the big names
going for big prizes," he says. "There are five superstars in
golf and 20 great stars. The rest should go and get real jobs."
Enter Mediate. "Oh, absolutely, it's meaningful for me to get
invited to these deals," he says, with a nod not only to the
Three-Tour Challenge and the Franklin Templeton Shootout but also
to his spot in the $1.2 million Hyundai Team Matches on Dec. 16
and 17, which will showcase Duffy Waldorf, among others. "During
Tour events they don't show guys like me on TV much. Now they
have to because no one else is there."
Mediate is obviously an agreeable fellow, but his presence at the
Three-Tour Challenge, along with that of Notah Begay, another
player with an alarmingly low Q rating, was a black eye for the
Tour. Both the Senior tour and the LPGA filled out their
three-person teams with their marquee players--Hale Irwin, Tom
Kite and Tom Watson for the old guys; Juli Inkster, Dottie Pepper
and Karrie Webb for the women. PGA Tour glamour boy Phil
Mickelson was on hand to compete for the piddling $800,000 purse,
but only because the Three-Tour telecast was being produced by
Gaylord Event Television, in which Mickelson, a client of Gaylord
Sports Management, has equity. (Gaylord also represents Mediate,
which explains why Mickelson chose him for his partner at the
Hyundai, another show being produced by GET.)
The best part about having Mediate on hand at the Three-Tour
Challenge was watching him try to navigate the tawdry trappings
of his first made-for-TV spectacle. It's fitting that the
Three-Tour was played near Las Vegas, the ancestral home of the
Silly Season, because the whole production was as fake as a
showgirl's smile. (After nine holes each of the players is
compelled to change clothes so that the telecast, slated for Dec.
23 and 24, can pretend the action spanned two days.)
Mediate seemed flustered as he waited over shots while an army of
cameramen got in position, and he continually fussed with the
microphone unit that was stuffed into his back pocket like an
oversized wallet. Among the nine players on hand he stood out as
the only one grinding on every shot. "I felt a little pressure,"
he says. "I wanted to prove they didn't make a mistake by
choosing me for the field."
Though Mediate sees this Silly Season as a way to raise his
status in the golf world, he's candid about the other motivation
for taking part. "You can't say it's not about the money," says
Mediate, who finished 34th on this year's money list. "You're
lying if you do."
For those living in the Tour's middle class, the Silly Season
money might seem pretty good, but for the elite players the
smallish purses are little more than chump change. "It used to be
that the off-season purses were just as big as the regular-season
purses, and only 10 or 20 guys were playing," says Davis Love
III, who was invited to virtually every Silly Season event this
year and turned down every invitation but one. "But these little
two-day events haven't raised their purses, and they can't
compete anymore. In November we're playing a $5 million event
[the Tour Championship], then another $5 million event [the
American Express Championship]; then we wait another three or
four weeks [actually seven] and there's another tournament with
$5 million on the table [the 2001 World Match Play]. All that
money is official. You tell me where our priorities should be."
The Silly Season's downfall is neatly summed up by Scott Hoch.
"There's only so much Tiger to go around," he says. "If he
doesn't play in something, then why have it?"
Even established Tour events are rendered all but meaningless
without Woods. You think the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge can
survive without him? Woods is in the vanguard of players snubbing
the Silly Season events in favor of bona fide tournaments held
abroad. Between the start of November and the end of year, Woods
scheduled trips to Spain for the American Express Championship,
Thailand for the Johnnie Walker Classic and Argentina for the
World Cup (to go along with journeys earlier this year to
European tour events in Germany and Scotland), leaving time for
only one Silly Season event--his own, this week's Williams World
Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Ask
Woods if the Silly Season is dying, and he says, "I don't think
so. Some tournaments have gotten bigger in recent years."
Woods is being coy. He knows that his is the only Silly Season
event that is thriving. Ten of the world's top 20 golfers
(including Love) will be among the dozen players at the World
Challenge. The field would be even stronger, but Africans like
Ernie Els and Nick Price feel an obligation to try to keep their
Sun City event afloat.
The cachet of the World Challenge, which is only in its second
year, inspires mixed emotions in Mediate. It's as if this year he
finally got invited to the party, only to show up at the wrong
address. "Tiger Woods is the biggest name in sports," he says.
"That's one tournament everyone wants to be a part of. Those are
like the cool people in school, and we're over here on the other
side of the cafeteria wishing we could hang out with them. But
that only gives me more incentive to work harder, so I can move
up in the World Ranking and get to be a part of that scene."
Mediate had better move up, because the day is coming, and soon,
when Woods's is not just the best Silly Season event but also
the only one.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CARL IWASAKI GLORY DAYS At the Skins Game debut in '83, the $360,000 purse dazzled (from left) Watson, Nicklaus, Player and Palmer.
COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN BURGER KINGS Mickelson (with, from right, Begay and Mediate) provided the only star power at the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK SKINS FLINT Woods, a hit in the '97 Skins, could be a Silly Season survivor.
The top players have concluded that spending their limited time
competing in what now passes for the Silly Season is, well, silly.