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Will golf be but a stepping-stone for the game's future stars?

William K. WolfrumBy William K. Wolfrum,
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With big success off the course, is Tiger Woods slowly turning his back on the PGA Tour? (Courtesy PGA of America)

With golf course design and other lucrative opportunities beckoning, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam are seemingly scaling back their Tour schedules. Are they setting the trend for professional golf's future?

Has professional golf evolved to the point where golfers' ultimate objective is to put themselves in a position where they don't have to golf?

The question is raised by observing recent developments at opposite ends of the pro spectrum.

At one end is Luke Swilor, who recently earned his Canadian Tour card. A blogger as well as a budding pro, Swilor gives his readers an inside view of what it's like to be a struggling young golfer - and it's not easy.

Swilor travels around North America playing US Pro Golf Tour and Canadian Tour events. His life is an endless string of qualifying, grinding and trying to get his game to a level where he can compete week in and week out on the PGA Tour. Reading his blog, you can tell he does it for the love of the game.

At the other end are Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam. They haven't just reached the pinnacle of golf, they have leaped over it. In apparent recognition of the achievement they seem less and less inclined to actually golf much anymore.

Tiger is clearly focusing on the events that matter to him personally, playing just 15 PGA Tour tournaments last season but making time for silly-season stuff in the winter and the Tavistock Cup in spring.

Just 30, Woods has long complained about the grueling Tour schedule. Now, with a kid on the way and a multi-multi-million-dollar course-design deal in Dubai in his pocket, he has made no bones about playing only where, when and as often as he feels like it.

At 36, Sorenstam took a little longer to come down with touring ennui, but she seems poised to go the Tiger route.

It isn't just the back injury that will keep her off-course at least a month. She's already made noises about devoting more of her time and energy to relationships, course design and fitness and cooking projects. Odds are we won't see her in competition as often as in the past.

True, Tiger and Annika are head-of-the-pack exceptions, maybe the two most dominant pros in golf history. But in today's golf world this sort of thing could become a trend rather quickly.

Most pro golfers know their bread is buttered on the links. But the more time the top players spend around corporate types, with design and other lucrative deals being hurled their way, the easier it is start looking at other avenues. Between endorsements and off-course business activities, the leading players make an awfully pretty penny.

Fans of Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL have long worried that blockbuster money would ruin their favorite games. You can make an argument that they have.

Still, plenty of baseball, basketball and football players remain active into their late 30s and even their 40s. Their contracts might be huge now, but for most athletes the fields of retirement aren't lined with green. Increasingly, that is not the case for top golfers.

Curtis Strange made an interesting comment recently when he and Hubert Green were nominated for the World Golf Hall of Fame. "We're a lot alike," Strange said of his former Tour colleague.

Indeed, in those days nearly every golfer of renown was similar in relation to his or her peers, and to the game. You win some on the Tour, take home a couple of majors, endorse some products. When your prime winds down, you design a few courses, play a bit on the Champions Tour and enjoy the life of a well-to-do businessperson.

In some ways it's not much different for today's stars. But the on-course payouts and off-course opportunities have gotten much bigger, and the temptation to chuck the Tour routine earlier must get correspondingly higher.

No doubt Luke Swilor and his peers dream of that kind of success, and we wish them luck in achieving it. One can only hope that when those now battling for a breakthrough reach the pinnacle of their careers, they don't start looking at the game of golf as justs the means to more lucrative ends.

William K. Wolfrum keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. You can follow him on Twitter @Wolfrum.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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