PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Even as he held firm that golf would survive no matter how long Tiger Woods stayed away, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the sex scandal of his No. 1 player was the biggest “curveball” he’s ever faced.
Finchem tried Thursday to dispel a “gloom and doom” outlook for golf after the game’s biggest star announced an indefinite leave to sort out his personal life. He predicted a successful season in 2010, while conceding no sport is as good without its best player.
“If Tiger is out for a couple of months or eight months or a year, we’re going to have a successful year,” Finchem said. “It won’t be at the same level without our No. 1 player, there’s no question about that. No sport would be at the same level without its No. 1 player.”
Finchem has been commissioner since 1994 and is used to Woods being the talk of golf.
Not like this, though. And not at a time when golf isn’t even being played.
“I can’t think of anything else that was more of a curveball,” Finchem said during a break from TV interviews. “Just the magnitude of it. I can’t recall an individual in politics, entertainment, sports, with this level of focus that it’s generating in the media. Everybody is talking about it. My 17-year-old daughter comes home from school, they’re talking about it in the classroom.
“I’ve often said that up until (President Barack) Obama, he was the most recognized guy on the planet, and everybody thought he was perfect. The realization that he’s not is huge news.”
How golf gets by without Woods — and how it reacts when he does return — is yet to be seen.
Woods announced last Friday that he was stepping away from golf to try to save his marriage, although it hasn’t stopped allegations of more extramarital affairs that have taken him from golf magazines to the cover of gossip magazines.
Finchem said the tour had no input on Woods’ decision to take a break from golf. He also suggested that the many salacious tales of infidelity would not be subject to discipline under the tour’s “conduct unbecoming” clause.
The tour does not announce suspensions or fines, although John Daly told The Associated Press last year he had been suspended for six months because of a long list of negative publicity, including his mug shot from a North Carolina jail where he was taken to get sober.
“Historically, the PGA Tour has never … taken a situation in someone’s personal life and dealt with it from a disciplinary matter,” Finchem said. “Our regulations relate to conduct unbecoming that’s either in the public arena or law enforcement arena.”
He said the clause was created to let players know “why certain behavior is inappropriate from a public presentation of our sport.”
“That wouldn’t be relevant here, either,” he said. “It’s never been seriously considered that these matters in his personal life are subject to our tournament regulation.”
Finchem also said he wasn’t concerned with Woods being linked to a Canadian doctor under investigation because his assistant was found transporting drugs, including HGH, into the United States. The doctor, Anthony Galea, said he treated Woods with “blood spinning” to help his recovery from knee surgery.
“There’s a lot of doctors linked to HGH,” Finchem said. “There’s no reason for me to be concerned because I have no information to trigger a concern.”
Finchem used a few indicators to show that golf can manage without its star player.
He said six of the highest-performing tournaments, which he based on net revenue donated to charity, haven’t had Woods in the field during the last several years. He also said the cumulative number of viewers during a PGA Tour event did not decrease even when Woods missed the second half of 2008 with knee surgery.
“I’m not saying that I think everything is fine,” Finchem said. “We’re in a down economy. It’s hard to sell. And having the No. 1 player in our sport not play is not a positive thing, and it does hurt television ratings. But I look at it in the reverse. I look at Tiger spiking ratings off of a significantly solid base when he plays … and I want that spike. And I certainly want the attention he brings to the sport.”
The attention has shifted dramatically since a Nov. 27 car accident outside his Florida home, setting off sensational details of extramarital affairs that have tarnished sports’ biggest star and put golf on late-night TV shows. Finchem was spoofed last week on “Saturday Night Live,” which portrayed him drinking out of a flask as placards of sponsors dropped off the wall behind him.
“Let me just parenthetically say that the rumor that I keep a flask on my desk is not true,” Finchem joked.
He sprinkled some good news into his conference call: The tour has renewed title sponsorship with the Sony Open in Honolulu for at least one year through 2011 and plans to work with the company on a 3-D broadcast. He also said the title sponsor at a playoff event, the BMW Championship outside Chicago, was extended four years through 2014.
That makes 10 title sponsors with new contracts this year — seven renewals and three new sponsors. Finchem also said the sponsor of the season-ending Tour Championship, Coca-Cola, is finishing up details on its contract renewal.
Finchem also chose to use a different measure of television. While Woods was shown to spike ratings — they were down about 50 percent at 2008 tournaments he didn’t play in because of the knee surgery — Finchem said the cumulative number of viewers for a PGA Tour event over four days is second only to a three-hour NFL game.
He said the tour had an average of 26 million viewers each week in 2007, and the number was roughly the same in 2008, when Woods played only five tournaments. The number increased to 29 million this year.
Finchem said PGA Tour events raised $125 million for charity in 2008, and it dropped to $109 million this year, mainly because of the economy. Projections are slightly higher for 2010.
“I don’t see corporate America backing away from golf over Tiger’s issue, and I do think at the end of the day, after all the media scrutiny, if he can successfully deal with those issues and come back and play golf, that will be a positive thing,” he said.
“I’m not suggesting that his popularity level is going to soar again. I don’t know where that’s going to be,” Finchem said. “But I think people generally are going to want him to succeed. They’re going to want him to deal with his issues. They’re going to want him to come back having dealt with those issues. And I think he’ll find, eventually, a significant amount of support.”