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The (golf) gloves are off Add to ...


Here's a theory: Tiger Woods's very public drama has opened up both players' tongues and the buttoned-down workings of the PGA Tour.

Suddenly, it appears, players are dissing one another in the media, while sponsors are taking a closer look at the value their dollars buy. It may be a stretch to see the sordid Tiger saga in these developments, but something has changed in the golfing world since his car and marital crash last U.S. Thanksgiving.

Exhibit A is Scott McCarron's lacerating Phil Mickelson for his decision to take advantage of a loophole in the new PGA Tour rule meant to prevent players from using clubs with U-shaped grooves rather than V-shaped. The loophole allows players to use Ping Eye 2 wedges that are exempt from the ruling because of a lawsuit that Ping won in 1990 against the United States Golf Association, and which prevents any subsequent PGA Tour rules from overriding that decision.

"It's cheating, and I am appalled Phil has put it in play," McCarron said last week at the Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, Calif. McCarron surely meant that Mickelson should abide by the spirit of the rule, and later said he didn't explicitly call Mickelson a cheater, but trying to parse his words with a different spin is quite a challenge.

One player, then, was speaking out against another, something that has been all but verboten on the PGA Tour.

"Some players have spoken out against other players, which we don't want to see out here on tour," Ernie Els said. The Big Easy was tacitly acknowledging the PGA Tour's not-so-secret injunction: Don't diss the competition. Never rock the boat.

But could the boat be taking on water? Players are talking. Tongues are wagging. Exhibit B ties in to the sponsorship issue, in that Woods has felt the sting from a fellow player, and one of the best in history. Eight-time major champion Tom Watson had sharp words for Woods when he spoke recently with NBC affiliate KHSB-TV.

"It's something he needs to get control of and a handle on, and show some humility to the public when he comes back," Watson was quoted as saying in the New York Daily News. Watson said Woods's behaviour is "bad for our game."

Watson also spoke of Woods's on-course "swearing and his club-throwing." He added, "That's not part of what we want to project as far as the professional golf tour is concerned."

Well, whatever, and Watson made more similar comments yesterday in advance of the Dubai Desert Classic, where he's playing in today's first round. But parents who choose an athlete, an actor, or a politician as a role model for their children should maybe give themselves a shake.

It's unlikely, anyway, that the PGA Tour brass cares as much about players living up to some idealized vision of a role model as about whether they disappoint corporate sponsors. The PGA Tour hasn't done enough to support them. The tour is getting what it deserves when sponsors decide to withdraw from events.

This brings us squarely to the sponsorship issue, and the unprecedented downward momentum on the PGA Tour's bloated purses. The money is contracting. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that while only three of the 46 PGA Tour events this year lack title sponsors, 13 are without one for next year.

Sure, Farmers Insurance stepped in at the 11th hour to sponsor last week's tournament at La Jolla (Woods's usual first tournament of his season). But Farmers reportedly paid $3.5-million (U.S.) for the title sponsorship. That's half of what it would have paid in the good times, and it committed for only this year. Meanwhile, the Bob Hope Classic in Palm Desert, Calif., two weeks ago lacked a title sponsor. Mike Weir was the top player there, and he was then ranked No. 37 in the world.

Players like the big money on offer even though they don't want to be told where to play. Why, that would help the sponsors, who put up the mega-bucks the players receive.

But hey, they're independent contractors. Why would the big names submit to being forced to play in tournaments? The RBC Canadian Open? The week after the Open Championship across the pond? Come on.

But some players are waking up and speaking up. Woods isn't playing and nobody knows when he's coming back. Players' pocketbooks could be affected.

"Tim [Finchem]has a relationship with everybody involved, and right now it doesn't seem like he's doing a good job keeping the players and helping our sponsors," PGA Tour player Paul Goydos said to Golf World magazine of the commissioner. "I think Tim needs to do a better job at that."

More verbal jousting. Players going at one another. Players going at the commissioner. The PGA Tour is crackling with vituperation.

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in," Leonard Cohen wrote in his song Anthem. Ah, Cohen. The man speaks truth to power. His insight could well apply to what was not long ago Woods's world, and, because of him, his fellow players' world as well.

The light's getting in, and there's a darkness at the edge of the PGA Tour.

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