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A sport that is headed on international course


POTOMAC -- This is about the business end of another sport, golf.

Wait, wait, wait, before you go scurrying off to tales from the NBA playoffs, the French Open or the latest tribute to Cal Ripken, bear with me for a moment.

Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, visited Avenel yesterday, site of the 28th Kemper Open beginning tomorrow (the first threesome tees off at 7:15 a.m.), and reported on the doings of the tour's policy board.

His words were a symphony if you dabble in stocks and bonds, are intrigued by the strategies of business leaders or subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. For a group of people waiting to talk to a name player after a practice round or for the Merrill Lynch Shootout later on, it seemed to drag ever so slightly.

Terms such as "international presence," "expanding sponsorship access" and "targeting the interests of all concerned" come across as high-falutin' when thousands will show up daily until late Sunday afternoon when they're hoping the last two players on the course are dead even starting the 72nd hole.

But consider: While the announcement of the PGA's approving an international television distribution agreement with ESPN International, Sky Television and Prime International may induce sleep initially, this and other seemingly inconsequential matters are what will shape the game in the future.

The TV deal, for instance, is for just about every event on the PGA, Senior PGA and Nike tours, so viewers in Bangkok, the Canary Islands and Tierra del Fuego will no doubt be singing the praises of Esteban Toledo (PGA), Brandel Chamblee (Senior PGA) and Omar Oresti (Nike) by this time next year.

"By improving the quality and quantity of what is seen in the international market, we're not only doing a service to the game, enhanced exposure will also meet the needs of sponsors on a worldwide basis," Finchem said.

Of the big four pro sports in this country -- baseball, football, basketball and hockey -- the first and the last named have progressed farthest in attempts to internationalize their games. Tennis has been global for quite a while, as has golf, but there has never been any real continuity and cooperation in the links game.

If dozens of baseball players can drag down annual salaries in excess of $3 million and the average among 700 major-leaguers is $1 million-plus, imagine what a good golfer will be worth considering the unbelievable sponsorships, the gate receipts, the marketing and everything else golf commands.

The next step in making a truly international game, one that doesn't slip off to parochialism after a Grand Slam event or two, according to the commissioner, is enlisting the best players on the planet.

"We're always out to get the best players possible to compete on our tour," said Finchem, "but we don't want to entice players away from their home tours. If a player wants to play here, fine, but if he doesn't want to be full time and he wants to play in Europe, we're working on giving him additional access to tournaments here."

Not only golf, but the corporations putting up the big money that drives the show are increasingly relating to international markets. "And if we can work with the other tours to have the impact there that we feel we have here, it will benefit all concerned," Finchem said.

He described as "solid dialogues" the discussions he has had with the European, Japanese, Australian and other tours, the PGA's approach being "aggressive but careful." He cited the Olympics as "being the epitome of worldwide competition and interest," but, as we all know, the famed five rings often symbolizes how many spats the International Olympic Committee wrestles with weekly.

"What we believe is important and what we want is for all the tours to be strong," said Finchem. "If we can have it both ways, strong cooperation among the tours while they remain separate structures, so much the better."

Long before the "alphabet wars" came to boxing, tennis went through the same thing with the international governing bodies, the Grand Slam event people, the women, the men, national federations and pros and amateurs squabbling constantly.

"We'll have to be careful," Finchem said. "If our attempts to keep the tours strong individually and they're all run well and we can accommodate each other, we'll see what evolves out of that."

Interest in American events will soar on the other continents if viewers can see the likes of Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Jumbo Ozaki and a Roberto DeVicenzo competing. Of course, the other tours will be looking for U.S. favorites to enhance their tours, too.

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