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Golf Brass Takes Dead-Aim on NFL

By John M. Ross,
NFL Football
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Can the PGA Tour garner this kind of attention by the year 2020? (.)

Golf's leaders have given fair warning to pro football that the game is taking dead-aim on the NFL, with the dedicated resolve to dislodge it from its lofty spot atop the chart that measures sports fan interest. It won't happen tomorrow. Indeed, the golf people are looking down the road apiece, like the year 2020, but they're convinced it can be done.

This was the battle cry that came out of the recent golf industry conference in Florida. It didn't get much immediate attention because the folks down there were too busy trying to figure out how they made such a mess of the presidential election. But in a calmer moment, the announced goal of growing the golf fan base to 177 million over the next 20 years had enough impact to attract broad attention. And, if that weren't dazzling enough, the committee in charge of blue skies also predicted that the rounds of golf played in the U.S. would double over that stretch.

This brainstorming session, which had "Golf 20/20; Vision for the Future" on its banner, was triggered by the report last year by the National Golf Foundation that the game was not holding its new players and that quick, corrective action was needed. The fastest, surest way of achieving this, it was suggested, would be through the PGA Tour, the game's showcase and branded product.

While the spectacular ascension of Tiger Woods has sent TV ratings and tournament attendance soaring, golf currently trails pro football by a substantial margin in fan interest. According to an ESPN Sports Poll, 69.3 percent of U.S. sports fans follow the NFL. Golf comes in at 43.3 percent, and that leaves a substantial gap to close in 20 years. One of the enthusiasts was quick to point out that the current level is up 20.1 percent since 1980 - a 20-year stretch.

Similar summits in the past have failed to make much of a dent in the game's problems, and those on hand for Golf 20/20 agreed that a new course must be pursued. In-depth studies are needed, followed by evaluation and a realistic course of action. This could be expensive, but the attendees, including most of the industry's prominent chieftains, pledged to take it on with spirit. It could mean happy days ahead. We'll see!

John Jacobs, one of the game's most astute teachers, has revealed that he coaches many of the tour players in his large stable by telephone. The outgoing Englishman, who recently was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, says he is able to do this because he has thoroughly studied and pictured in his memory bank the swings of all his players.

When his globetrotting tour players run into a problem, they simply telephone Jacobs for some expert help.

"I ask them what the ball is doing on a shot from a particular lie, or under certain conditions, and we can usually work out the solution," Jacobs says. Nine times out of ten, it's some swing fault or habit that has never been fully conquered.

I was telling a fellow at the club about this, and I could see the light bulb suddenly flash on over his head.

"Wow," he said, sitting up erect on his stool. "Wouldn't it be great if we could get our pro to do that. Think of the money we could save! A couple of minutes on the phone instead of that larcenous half-hour fee on the teaching tee!"

Did I mention that he still believes in the Tooth Fairy?

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were chatting about an upcoming charity event in which they'd be paired, and Arnie indicated he thought he'd try out a new club. Jack asked him, "Which one?" But Arnie said he hadn't decided as yet.

Jack couldn't resist. "Anything legal?" he needled with a chuckle.

Insiders say Palmer is still dazed by the negative uproar from his faithful ranks following his endorsement of the non-conforming Callaway ERC II driver. And the results of dozens of polls that indicate an overwhelming portion of American golfers would not play with an illegal club aren't likely to soothe his feelings.

On the other hand, Palmer's embrace of the ERC II, combined with the rift between the USGA and the R & A over what is legal and what is not, has encouraged more start-up and smaller equipment companies to market nonconforming clubs. And, shoppers report, there's an ample supply of non-conformers, purchased from foreign outlets, in off-course shops. Some with price tags running as high as $1,000.

Another one who might be wondering where all the friendly faces have gone is the Tiger, himself. Since his recent blast at the PGA Tour and his pointed suggestion that he might be entitled to a slice of its profits, Woods' line on the popularity charts has taken a sudden nosedive. And that chant in the background is "Greed...Greed...Greed."

Indeed, as he approaches his 25th birthday, there are signs developing that indicate the blocks in his path to becoming "the greatest of the greatest" could be his own celebrity and a developing urge to demand a bigger check. This is precisely what some forecasters have been saying, that as he piled up victory upon victory, endless entries in the record book, and additional millions in the bank, that the opponent to beat would not be on the golf course, but somewhere around the rim.

After only four years on the pro tour, his career has been perfection, as if it was following a carefully crafted script. He has functioned like a golfing robot, beating the best players, obliterating the toughest courses, and gathering a huge following as he went his way. The color of his skin was no burden. He was generally regarded as a "good fellow," courteous, well spoken, surprisingly mature except for an occasional expletive after a near-miss putt. That bright picture seems to be clouding a bit now.

In the wake of his salvo at the PGA Tour, he made another headline when the Screen Actors Guild fined Woods $50,000 (reduced from $100,000) for filming a commercial for Buick while the union was on strike. And, a few days later, one of the supermarket scandal sheets trumpeted its reasons why Tiger will never marry his blond girlfriend of the past two years.

To play winning golf on the tour, especially at Tiger's incredible level, requires total concentration. Every one of the best players will tell you that. Distractions can turn winners into runners-up. Woods has heard that from many sources by now, and he'd better take heed. The test is at hand.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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