2001: Newsmakers - Northern exposure

By DALE GARDNER

Toronto

Jess Daley is a young man with a sterling résumé and lofty aspirations, looking to make his way into big-time golf. A former All-American at Northwestern University, Daley once shot 62 in a college event. These days, he’s a 23-year-old fledgling pro in need of a place to ply his trade.

Having failed to advance past the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament a year ago, Daley does not have access to the PGA Tour. He has tried Monday qualifying for Buy.com Tour events – and even has been successful on a number of occasions – but he knows placing an entire week on the line in a single qualifying round can be, at best, a crapshoot.

So Daley looked at his options and decided to follow a trail north, to the Canadian Tour.

Which was wonderful news for Jacques Burelle. He’s commissioner of the Canadian Tour, and his goal is to lift the organization to a position just below the Buy.com Tour and above the clutter of mini-tours.

“We want to be the world’s best developmental golf tour,” said Burelle, 53, a sports marketing veteran in the middle of his second three-year term with the Toronto-based tour.

Few would argue that a void exists in the pecking order of professional golf, a void created by the “Tiger Woods effect.” Thanks to Woods’ fan appeal, the PGA Tour has been able to extract record rights fees from television networks, which in turn has allowed it to offer prize money, member benefits and endorsement opportunities that have elevated the sport’s status to nearly the same level as baseball, football and basketball. Top athletes are opting for careers in golf, thus deepening the talent pool.

But one side effect has been that players with resumes even more impressive than Daley’s – Charles Howell, Matt Kuchar, Michael Kirk, Ben Curtis and Adam Scott to name a few – have found it increasingly difficult to crack the starting lineup for even the Buy.com Tour, which is populated by mid-career players looking to regain their PGA Tour playing privileges (Golfweek, May 5). Indeed, many argue that prefacing Buy.com Tour with the word “developmental” is a misnomer.

“If you’re playing for $15 million, you no longer are a developmental tour,” said Burelle. That figure is actually closer to $13 million, but Burelle makes his point. The total purse on the Buy.com Tour has nearly doubled in four years (from $7.4 million in 1998, when it was the Nike Tour), meaning that it’s possible to make a comfortable living on a tour that was intended to be a farm system for the big show.

In a move that’s expected to attract more young stars out of college who do not have access to the PGA Tour or Buy.com Tour, the Canadian Tour has rescheduled its spring Q-School, which traditionally was staged the same week as the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship. Instead, qualifying in 2002 will be opposite the U.S. Open, giving the class of ’02 a chance to play the Canadian Tour while awaiting the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament in the fall.

The Q-School change comes on the heels of the Canadian Tour’s expansion last winter into the United States. In February, the season opened with the first of four consecutive events in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Each was televised live on The Golf Channel, which provided a novel marketing twist by miking several players for live audio commentary during their rounds. Next year, the Canadian Tour will increase its number of U.S. events to six, adding two in Scottsdale, Ariz. Eventually, the tour would like to stage 10 tournaments in the States, building its schedule to 20 full-field events, six more than it played in 2001.

“Among the tours in the Americas, it’s definitely the third best tour in my mind,” said Rocky Hambric, the agent whose firm represents, among Canadian Tour participants, Daley, now No. 9 on its Order of Merit, and Edward Loar, a four-time All-American from Oklahoma State University. Loar qualified for the Canadian Tour at its spring Q-School after failing in the second stage at last year’s PGA Tour Q-School.

Along with a steady schedule of events, said Hambric (who is helping the Canadian Tour line up Texas venues for its ninth and 10th stops in 2002), another draw is increasing attention from U.S. media, which, combined with The Golf Channel coverage, boosts exposure for players in search of endorsement deals.

“And it’s the only real developmental tour,” he said. “It’s head and shoulders above the classic mini-tours. It’s not big prize money, but you don’t play it to make a living. You play it to develop your game.”

To the extent that its players graduate to bigger tours, Burelle said, the Canadian Tour is accomplishing its mission. The Canadian Tour sent 80 players to PGA Tour Q-School a year ago. “Forty-five made it to second stage,” Burelle said, “seventeen made it to third stage (the finals) and four got their PGA Tour cards. Seven got Buy.com cards.

“And that’s not an exceptional year. We have about 10 guys who make it to the PGA Tour or Buy.com Tour every year.”

The pay might not be great – purses are about one-fourth the size of those on the Buy.com Tour – but Daley and others appreciate what the Canadian Tour offers as an alternative to the grinds of mini-tours – where golfers basically compete for the money they put up – and to frenzied Monday shootouts with no guarantees.

The Canadian Tour offers 72-hole events on quality venues, a steady diet he knows will deliver the one ingredient he needs most at this point: experience.

“It’s a tough way to go if you want to just Monday qualify (on the Buy.com),” said Daley. “You don’t know if you’re going to be playing that weekend. Only 14 guys get through, and sometimes there’s 300 guys qualifying. Sometimes it’s two different courses not remotely similar to the tournament courses – you know, standard public courses with slow greens.”

Of course, Daley and other budding pros like him have several viable options in North America, including the Hooters Tour, Golden Bear Tour, Tight Lies Tour and Montgomery Tour. Among the reasons Daley cites for choosing the Canadian Tour:

• Course setups. Conditions mimic the PGA Tour, he said, from punishing rough and fast greens to pro-ams and 36-hole cuts. In fact, said Daley, the Canadian Tour setups were more difficult than those at some of the Buy.com events he played last year, where soft greens at times left courses defenseless.

• Proximity. For U.S. players, the Canadian Tour is close to home – even closer now, with events in at least six U.S. markets. Daley, who recently married and lives near Chicago, is like others who don’t want to travel halfway around the world to Asia or Australia learn how to win. Plus, the PGA Tour’s second-stage qualifying events conflict with those of the PGA European Tour, whereas the Canadian Tour operates Q-Schools in fall, winter and spring.

Costs, too, might be a factor. Aside from travel and living expenses, the Canadian Tour, a nonprofit entity, is relatively inexpensive – $1,250 for Q-School, plus a $300 membership fee and entry fees of $135 per event. Meanwhile, the NGA/Hooters Tour, a privately operated, 23- to 25-event tour sponsored by the restaurant chain, charges $2,000 to become a member and play in a “ranking” school that determines a player’s exempt status. Entry fees are $650 per event, each of which is 72 holes. It adds up to approximately $15,000-$16,000 for the full schedule, played mostly in the Southeast.

The Golden Bear Tour charges $17,000 to enter its 15-event tour, which accepts players on a first-come, first-served basis and plays mostly 54-hole events (five are 72 holes). All events are played in Florida near its West Palm Beach headquarters; the tour is owned by Jack Nicklaus.

All three tours can claim a lengthy list of alumni playing the PGA Tour; many players fill out their schedules by competing on two or more mini-tours. Canadian Tour graduates on the PGA Tour include Canadian Mike Weir, Steve Stricker, Robert Damron, Chris DiMarco, Notah Begay III, Kirk Triplett and Tim Herron.

“I played the Canadian Tour for two years and thought it was great,” said DiMarco, who in 1992 had the tour’s low-stroke average and won the Order of Merit. “At the time, it was one of the only tours you could play that had 72-hole events. My wife and I didn’t have any kids at the time, and we’d drive from event to event, enjoying the country. It was a good experience.”

When it was started 17 years ago, the idea was to create a tour where young Canadian players could play in a PGA Tour-like environment against the world’s up-and-coming players. But until 2001, it was failing in an important dimension: continuity of play. Efforts to expand beyond a core of about 10 June-September events stretching from British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east, each with purses of $100,000 (U.S.) or slightly more, had failed to generate sufficient support from local sponsors.

Early in Burelle’s tenure, he fielded groups of a few dozen players in two-day events that gave the Canadian Tour a presence in all the country’s provinces. It was an exploratory exercise, the thought being that a truly national golf tour would have such a presence. But market realities – including Canada’s population concentration in Ontario and Quebec – caused Burelle to devise a new strategy.

“We just needed to play more,” said Burelle. “Obviously with our weather and our market, we needed to go to the States.”

Fortunately for Burelle, The Golf Channel – one of only a few foreign-owned networks with penetration into Canada – also had a need: more live golf in late winter and early spring. Burelle and TGC president Joe Gibbs struck a deal in May 2000. Neither party would disclose rights fees arrangements, but the Canadian Tour, which typically funds its purses through title sponsors, has had no title sponsors at its U.S. events, suggesting that TGC’s rights fees covered these expenses. Even if the Canadian Tour receives no other cash from TGC, it benefits from the investment, estimated to be several hundred thousand dollars per event to cover production costs, including the expenses of about 60 employees.

Television coverage aside, the Canadian Tour’s competitors aren’t impressed.

Robin Waters, president of the NGA/Hooters Tour (a name that incorporates a reference to the National Golf Association, the corporate entity that owns the tour), argues that his tour prepares players for bigger leagues as well as any. He cites last year’s NGA/Hooters players as evidence: two received PGA Tour cards and five earned Buy.com status. NGA/Hooters records also show that 12 of the 36 players who earned PGA Tour cards in 2000 played the NGA/Hooters Tour at one time.

“We are as close to the reality of playing on the PGA and Buy.com tours as you can get,” said Waters. “We have 72-hole events, guaranteed purses. . . . Nobody is riding carts like they do on the Golden Bear Tour and others.”

Furthermore, he said, his tour’s purses are bigger, usually $125,000 per event, and first-place prize money typically is about $22,000. The Canadian Tour’s first-place money is usually $16,000 (U.S.).

Though the Golden Bear Tour plays mostly 54-hole events, that doesn’t lessen its value as a developmental tour, says tournament director Rick Whitfield.

“Getting acclimated to playing for money is one thing,” he said. “To get comfortable with that, plus traveling all over the country – that’s tough. This is a step you can take, and it brings some real life to a player. If you can’t shoot 20 under on the Golden Bear Tour in a three-day event, you don’t have a chance on the other tours.”

Purses on the Golden Bear Tour typically are bigger than those on the NGA/Hooters Tour.

Burelle acknowledges that his greatest challenge is boosting Canadian Tour purses to a more enticing level.

“Obviously, the biggest need we have here is to get our purses up to $300,000 U.S.,” he said.

Burelle said he hopes eventually to sell naming rights to an umbrella sponsor, or to sell groups of tournaments – for example, the British Columbia events or the Ontario events – to different sponsors.

Sponsorship experts said the economic downturn and growing competition for sponsorship dollars diminish the likelihood that such an effort would succeed now. But that doesn’t trouble Burelle. His first priority is to build a firmer foundation, a better package to offer.

“We just need to keep raising our profile a lot,” he said.

In trying to cement itself as North America’s No. 3 tour, that continues to be his No. 1 priority.

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