IF YOU HAPPENEDto be in Las Vegas last Friday night at the concert hall within the PlanetHollywood Resort, then for one heady evening the PGA Tour felt like the centerof the universe. The second round was in the books at the inaugural JustinTimberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (phew!), and now the eponymoustournament host was headlining a concert to benefit the Shriners. Every playerin the field had been given tickets, and in the minutes before the music began,clusters of off-duty Tour players mingled in the lobby, wolfishly eyeing theparade of talent and looking satisfied with the knowledge that this glitteryevening wouldn't be happening without their tournament. ¬∂ From ananthropological standpoint it was fascinating to observe the players in anonnative environment. Dustin Johnson, the 24-year-old rookie who was stillflying high from his first victory last month, channeled Timberlake with arakishly worn tie as part of a carefully put-together hipster ensemble. JohnDaly kept one hand wrapped around a bottle of beer and the other around hisdate. If the standard Tour-player uniform on this night was jeans, button-downshirt and cowboy boots, Brian Gay wore it with the most panache, thanks tosnakeskin kicks, skintight denim, a humongous belt buckle and a bejeweled shirtunbuttoned all the way down to here. Stephen Ames had missed the cut earlier inthe day, but he couldn't swallow his grin as he pressed the flesh in the lobby."This concert is the whole reason I played here," said Ames. With a nodto his sons who were underfoot—Justin, 11, and Ryan, 9—he said, "There's noway they were going to miss this."
The 3 1/2-hourperformance lasted until 1 a.m. and included a lineup of the biggest acts inpop music, such as Rihanna, Leona Lewis, the Jonas Brothers and the group thatinspired Timberlake to first pick up a microphone, the '90s sensation Boyz IIMen. Timberlake blew the roof off with a raucous closing set during which atvarious times he shared the stage with Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Will.i.am ofthe Black Eyed Peas, 50 Cent and, not least, Lionel Richie. At the start of theconcert Timberlake addressed the crowd, thanking it for helping to raise morethan $1 million for the Shriners. Singling out the Tour players in theaudience, he also mocked despair over all the birdies that were being made atTPC Summerlin during daylight hours. Said Timberlake, who looked like acredible single-digit handicapper during the Wednesday pro-am, "You guysmake me sick!" If a dude who wakes up in the morning next to Jessica Bielcan be moved to jealousy, then the PGA Tour as an institution must be doingsomething right.
In fact, theflashy concert was of a piece with a successful debut for this reconstitutedtournament. Timberlake's star power was a factor in attracting astronger-than-usual field, but so too was dropping the tedious weeklong pro-amformat and the cumbersome multicourse arrangement. The weather was perfect, theputting surfaces were as smooth as the green felt of a blackjack table, and the$4.1 million purse covered plenty of gambling losses.
The modern Tourhas always been a make-believe world of easy money, all-you-can-eat buffets andgleaming courtesy cars—in Las Vegas, they were all Audis—but even with therespite of a night of revelry, there was an ominous feeling in the air lastweek.
BY ANY NAME theVegas Tour stop has always been about cold, hard cash because the tournamentcomes in the dying weeks of the season when many are playing for theirlivelihoods. This year's stressfest was compounded by larger developments,which have left much of the Tour fretting about the future.
"We're likeeverybody else—all we're talking about is the economy, the election and alittle bit about the Rays," says Davis Love III, who tied for sixth, hissecond top 10 in three Fall Series events. Except for the World Series--boundRays, these are troubling topics for Tour players. Paul Azinger estimated lastweek that his colleagues are 99% Republican (and that may be a conservativenumber) primarily because the players vote their pocketbooks. An analysis bythe Tax Policy Center, recently cited in Rolling Stone, estimated that forthose who make more than $1 million a year—which, including endorsements, ispretty much the entire Tour—the out-of-pocket difference between the tax plansof Barack Obama and John McCain is nearly $270,000. If Obama rides his lead inthe polls to victory next month, Tour players will be feeling pain that is morethan ideological.
THE MELTDOWNS onWall Street and in the banking industry have also resonated deeply on Tour.Eleven of this year's title sponsors and three presenting sponsors are drawnfrom the financial services industry. The Tour's putative sixth major, theWachovia Championship, is already suffering an identity crisis. On Oct. 3 WellsFargo bought the faltering Wachovia Corp. in a coupling of megabanks.
Earlier this yearWachovia signed an extension to continue its sponsorship of the Charlotte-basedtournament through 2014. Wells Fargo is obligated to honor the contract, butuncertainty about all the details has compelled tournament officials to stopthe presses on printing tickets and promotional materials.
"If you'renot at least a little bit worried about our sponsor situation, then you've beenhiding under a rock," says Azinger.
Or you're PGATour commissioner Tim Finchem, who is paid to be an optimist. "We've seenthis before in the last 20 years," Finchem says, "but when there havebeen other recessions, the Tour has maintained sponsorship at nearly 100percent and in some ways has been strengthened. No question corporateexpenditures are now being scrutinized more than ever, but I believe that helpsus because companies get great value with our product and the unique audiencewe attract." More to the point, every title sponsor on Tour is signedthrough at least 2010, which means the schedule (and prize money) will remainunaffected in the short term.
But the saggingeconomy is already being felt by tournaments on next year's West Coast swing.Officials for the Sony Open in Hawaii report having lost a half-dozen longtimecorporate supporters, and the title sponsor of the FBR Open, afinancial-services company, has already made it known that it will beentertaining less during tournament week in Scottsdale, Ariz. The biggesteffect of this downsizing will be on the charities supported by the individualtournaments, since their money comes out of the net proceeds, which are proppedup by corporate schmoozing.
The players arealready coming face-to-face with the harsh realities of the current financialclimate. "Our economy is sound—it's everybody else who's hurting," saysLove. "I played in the pro-am this week with a car dealer and an investmentbanker. They're feeling the pain. I mean, I have 10 buddies who worked atLehman Brothers. Jeez, we have it made compared with those guys. My wife askedme why I was playing all six Fall Series events. It's because the money's outthere, but you have to go get it."
Love is fifth onthe alltime money list, with more than $36 million, and lives pretty large, butthinking ahead to next year, he says, "I'm definitely looking to cut back.The easy way to do that is the [private] plane. Right now guys are spending$200,000, $300,000 a year to $1 million--plus. It's definitely aluxury."
Some players havealready begun to downsize, according to Ed Lynch, the player liaison forSentient Jet, the official private jet company of the Tour. "We've seenplayers start to change their habits a little," Lynch says. "If theymake the cut, they fly private on the way home; if they miss the cut, they flycommercial. Everybody's being cautious about their spending."
Prize money maybe insulated from the downturn, but that's not the case in the endorsementmarket, where the climate is quickly changing. Says David Winkle, an agent atHambric Sports Management, "A month ago we were closing in on a deal with amajor automobile manufacturer for one of our players. When the stock marketbegan declining sharply, everything stopped. The company went from putting iton the back burner to totally pulling the plug in a matter of weeks."
THE EASY moneyfrom equipment deals, long taken for granted by the players, is also beginningto dry up, or at least that's the word on the practice tee. (The manufacturerslove free publicity, but it is a measure of their current jitteriness that repsfrom Nike and Titleist declined to comment for this article.) The rich willalways get richer—Anthony Kim is the biggest free agent this off-season, andNike is expected to break the bank to re-sign him—but members of the Tour'smiddle class are a lot more expendable. "The journeyman pros are likely toget squeezed," says Brad Buffoni, an agent at SFX Sports, which managesthree dozen Tour players. "I think the days are gone when having a PGA Tourcard meant someone would automatically give you a silly amount of money. Thebasic tenets of sports marketing need to matter more now. Results, personality,the whole package must be there."
For all theserumblings, Vegas was a reminder that the Tour can present an artistic andcommercial success even in the toughest times. The local housing market hasbeen hit hard, but corporate entertaining increased 10% over last year, andgate attendance was up a whopping 50%, thanks mostly to the tirelesspromotional efforts of Timberlake and his presence during tournament week. Hewas the star of the Wednesday pro-am, clowning with his friend Ellen DeGeneresand eliciting squeals from the large gallery, which skewed young and female.Afterward, Timberlake said it was his "mission" to persuade more of hisA-list pals to play in the years ahead. He was back on the property lastSaturday afternoon for a clinic alongside Butch Harmon, conducted at a packedrange in front of oodles of Shriners patients and First Tee kids who had beenbused in for the occasion. Fred Couples dropped by to donate his time andexpertise, a nice gesture from a superstar who probably would have preferred torest his aching back.
ON SUNDAY thefans were treated to a lively birdie binge by the leaders, and the tournamentgot a nice winner in Marc Turnesa (box, G8). Timberlake was on hand to presentthe trophy, which also came with $738,000. Everyone was all smiles, and for aminute it was easy to believe the good times would never end. As long as TigerWoods gets healthy and stays hungry, there is no doubt that the Tour willsurvive this downturn, and it may even prosper, as Finchem hopes. But the ageof excess is already over, even if the players are only beginning to realizeit.
"Our job isno longer simply about hitting golf shots," says Tom Pernice, a 23-yearveteran. "We need to do everything we can as players to help thesecompanies maximize their investment in the Tour. That means in the pro-am wehave to engage their clients and their guests. It means doing the littlethings, like stopping by corporate tents to shake hands or volunteering forclinics. It's going to take a different mind-set from all of us, especiallyfrom the younger guys."
As Pernice leftVegas, he was looking ahead to a players' meeting at this week's Frys.com Open."You can guess what is going to be the Number 1 topic," he said.
Look for AlanShipnuck's latest Hot List at GOLF.com.
"If you're not at least a little bit worried aboutour sponsor situation," says Azinger, "THEN YOU'VE BEEN HIDING UNDER AROCK."
"The days are gone when having a Tour card meantsomeone would automatically give you a SILLY AMOUNT OF MONEY," saysBuffoni.
A Family Tradition
Marc Turnesa's win was his first on Tour but old hatto his famous forebears
IT'S ONLY natural that Las Vegas is where so manyyoung Tour players hit a career jackpot. The trend began in the mid-'90s whentwo guys you've probably heard of each made Vegas his first victory: Jim Furykin 1995 and Tiger Woods in '96. Breakthroughs are now the norm in Sin City, asfive years running the tournament has produced a first-time winner. This timearound it was Marc Turnesa, a 30-year-old rookie who summoned a wire-to-wiretriumph that was a monument to his talent and perseverance.
Turnesa, a North Carolina State grad, came up the hardway, apprenticing on mini-tours like Minor League Golf and the Gateway whileflunking Q school five times. Last year he finished 16th on the Nationwidetour, earning his trip to the big leagues. He had never played a PGA Tour eventuntil this year, but he certainly knew what to expect, thanks to theconversation at various Thanksgiving dinners. Turnesa comes from one of thegreat golf clans. His great-uncle Jim won the 1952 PGA Championship, and hisgrandfather Mike was a six-time winner on Tour. Mike had six brothers—five ofthem played the Tour, including Joe, a 15-time winner. The only brother whodidn't turn pro, Willie, took the 1938 and '48 U.S. Amateurs and the '47British Amateur. Marc is both proud and a little wary of his lineage. "It'shard to play on the PGA Tour, I don't care what your last name is," hesays. "It's not any added pressure being a Turnesa."
Having taken the expected rookie lumps for most of theyear, Turnesa turned around his rookie campaign—and career—by reaching aplayoff (though losing) at last month's Viking Classic. The owner of a superbwedge game and one of the purest putting strokes on Tour, he was flat-out onfire upon arriving in Vegas, opening with a 10-under 62 at TPC Summerlin andthen shooting a front-nine 31 on Friday. Birdies on 14, 15 and 16 had reportersdigging through the Tour's record book for best 36-hole score, but then Turnesamade his worst swing of the week, a watery double bogey at the par-3 17th. Thatcould have been a momentum killer, but on the very next hole he slammed in anine-iron from 159 yards for an eagle that he later called the key shot of thetournament.
Turnesa protected his lead with a 69 in tougherconditions on Saturday. There were 12 players within four strokes at the outsetof the final round, and Turnesa looked vulnerable on the front nine, lateradmitting, "I was just trying to breathe, really. That's the only thing Ikind of knew how to do. I wasn't out-of-control nervous, but I was feelingit."
He steadied himself and then seized the tournament bybirdieing four of six holes in the middle of the round, a stretch punctuated byanother brilliant nine-iron, to within inches at the par-3 14th. Matt Kuchar,looking for his first victory in six years, shot a stellar 64, but pars on thefinal four holes doomed him to finish a stroke back.
There is no better city than Las Vegas in which toearn a $738,000 winner's check. Turnesa had scheduled an 8:40 departure onSunday night. Needless to say, he missed the flight.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno
SHOWSTOPPERS Timberlake headlined a Friday-night concert, while Turnesa (inset) starred on Sunday.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF JOE TURNESA JR.
MAGNIFICENT SEVEN The Turnesa brothers with Dad in 1936 at Elmwood (N.Y.) Country Club (from left): Phil, Frank, Joe, Mike, Doug, Jimmy, Vitale and Willie.
STEVE MARCUS/LAS VEGAS SUN/REUTERS (DE ROSSI AND DEGENERES)
BOLD-FACED GAMES Making the scene (from left): DeGeneres (right) and partner Portia de Rossi; baseball's Greg Maddux; Olympian Amanda Beard; Timberlake (top) and Biel, his girlfriend.
STEVE MARCUS/LAS VEGAS SUN/REUTERS (BEARD)
[See caption above]
STEVE MARCUS/LAS VEGAS SUN/REUTERS (BIEL)
[See caption above]
MARC FELDMAN/GETTY IMAGES (TIMBERLAKE)
[See caption above]
KOHJIRO KINNO (MADDUX)
[See caption above]
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno
FREE AT LAST The pros were happy to ditch a week with amateurs and stick to one course—birdie-friendly Summerlin.