Storms brew in the Pacific

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While I found myself in the midst of my own tempest during the Hyundai TOC, barely a day has passed after its conclusion before the islands got hit hard by heavy rains, and writers like Rex Hoggard wonder aloud in their blogs about whether the Tour opener should be bidding farewell to Hawaii! Say what?

Hoggard cites a lack of star power and the distance factor a reasons why the TOC isn’t such a big draw. His whole thing is “…location, location, location…” Obviously, the thought that he cold compare La Costa with kapalua tells you something about his taste in locations.

We’re not getting Tiger and Phil because they don’t need to be here. They already have zillions, and so why come all the way here? Obviously, their affinity to the Tour, the fans, and the event which kicks off the year isn’t enough to get them to come (Tiger, in all fairness, didn’t qualify, but he’s been a no show since 2006, and Phil since 2001!).

I think the fact that players don’t need the money, can pick and choose, and can blow off an event like this, whether or not they qualified in 2010, or can only play 11 events a year because they are from europe, or not, is the root of the problem. I think it is an attitudinal issue with the players being fat cats, and a Tour thing where they need to open up the qualifications parameters so big name plays can’t bail two years in a row. If they don’t do something, the lack of support for events will erode the overall prestige of the bulk of the events on Tour, given enough time.

Mark Rolfing, in an interview with Maui News staff writer Robert Collias, expressed disappointment at some of the story-lines and the turn-out during this year’s PGA Tour season-opening event, held last week at the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Hoggard takes his remarks and starts making a case for why it might be time for a move. Give me a break, that’s no reason to hit any panic buttons, Kapalua is a perfect location for the event: it is a great place for sponsors to wine and dine their VIPs, it is a chance to get some R & R for the players, and so what if five guys who qualified didn’t come: it’s always going to be that way, no matter where they have this thing.

“We were all revved up to be starting the season at Kapalua in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and all we are talking about was cut fingers, toes bashed and rules violations. There is a tournament going on and all we are talking about is appendages. That was weird,” the Hawaii golf hall of famer and TV golf analyst said of the focus on negatives. IMHO: It just wasn’t that weird a week, notwithstanding yours truly, and of all things I’d say Garrigus’ three-putt was the most disappointing thing to occur, in terms of play, although the Twitter ruling was a bit of a controversy too.

Mark went on to comment about the possible reasons for the thinner-than-expected galleries: “Well, we have gone from charging admission to making it free – I don’t think we can afford to pay people to come to our tournament. I think maybe it took a year for people to get used to this. A lot of times people say, ‘We are going to do this, we are going to do that,’ but it takes time. I think maybe we had to win back the trust of the community, maybe the community became disengaged with this event. I think we did make strides. I think it will be better next year and it wouldn’t hurt if Tiger Woods could win a tournament.”

I’d have to agree with Mark that it was a thinner-than-hoped-for-showing. I sat in the stands and there were a lot of empty seats on Saturday.

He couldn’t have done more to make it easier for people to come. He advertised the event so well, that when I was standing in Kahului airport at about 11 pm on Christmas eve, just watching the mobs roll in to get a sense of how many golfers were hauling bags, every baggage carousel had huge posters touting the event. You couldn’t be on this island without seeing one of the beautiful montages promoting the event on the back of a shuttle bus. It was promoted everywhere: I even saw a stack of flyers in the furniture store below my office, Pacific Green, here in Makawao!

But as Canadians and Californians rolled in, and zipped over to the literature racks to gather booklets and information, barely any in the three hours I was there that night were interested in golf. I know because I asked them.

Not wanting my small sample to sway me, I went back the next afternoon and tried a whole different round of arrivals, and it was basically the same thing: fewer golfers there.

Now, there are many people who have been in golf course marketing out here longer than me. I’ve only been at it since 1994. But, it was that year that I got permission from the airport to do a series of intercept surveys to learn what golfers where experiencing, from an informational standpoint, during their trips. I was grabbing them as they left, and there were way more visiting golfers back then than there are now. It is apparent visually, and it is apparent to me in the number of Maui Golf Reviews that get snapped up each year. I don’t care what anyone says: We are losing golfers.

So, while the community may not have been out in as much force as Mark may have hoped, I think the lack of golfers coming here may also be contributing to the picture that Mark is looking at. And that, my friends, is a by-product of our overall marketing of golf to mainlanders in general, and the societal shifts in golfers overall, which is often sidestepped. People are changing. Priorities are changing. The mainland has such a huge concentration of people at most Tour stops, so there are always enough bodies in a given Tour stop to fill a course during an event. It isn’t comparing apples to apples when you measure gallery sizes in Torry Pines, as opposed to Maui, where we have 100,000 people living here, and maybe another 20,000 on-island visiting. If that 20,000 there or maybe a few thousand players, at best.

These, along with the hefty money players are making, and their seemingly lax view about supporting events in general, are what I think cause gallery sizes at Kapalua to be less-than-optimal.

Hoggard says it may be a matter of opinion, but that “…the real start of the 2011 season will come in three weeks at Torrey Pines where Woods and Mickelson will likely make their Tour debuts, or next week at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on the European Tour, an event that will include three of the top 4 players in the World Ranking.”

I’d say Hoggard has a point, in that when Tiger and Phil are on TV, everyone is going to be watching. There’s no doubt that having star power makes the ratings, but there are many many events all year long that don’t have star power, and they succeed in accomplishing their goals. For Hyundai, or any other sponsor here in Hawaii, having the visibility a Tour event can muster, and being able to get your VIPs up close and personal with the players, is probably goal #1. If they want to back a major, buy a tent, or whatever you do as a corporate entity to get into one of those things, then go that route. But, as far as intimacy, uniqueness, and yes: location, location, and location are concerned, Hawaii is no ka oi.

We’re all struggling to keep afloat during hard times. I think the main reason the galleries were thin was anything but what Kapalua or Mark Rolfing did — they were awesome. I think it lies with the Tour and the players themselves. Most are spoiled rotten, many have zero personality, and so what’s the draw for you or me? Outside of trying to get a few players to say nice thing about our islands, and being tossed aside like I was some POS, I had no desire to watch any of them — whereas 10 years ago, I was a huge fan.

I think the new generation players, with all their pockets pre-lined with million-dollar-bills, are the real culprits. Just watch and see how many people come out to watch Jack Nicklaus play, versus Justin Rose. It isn’t the event, the promotion, or the community, it’s the players themselves. The current royalty in golfdom on Tour should all go to Arnold Palmer’s, or Jack Nicklaus’ house, and spend a month learning some manners, as well as how to appreciate what fans do for them.

John Byrne
John Byrne
Founded the Maui Golf Review in 1995.
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