PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said golf will survive no matter how long Tiger Woods stays away to sort out his personal life, and that a portrait of "gloom and doom" is misleading.
In the midst of a shocking sex scandal, Woods is taking an indefinite leave from competition to try to save his marriage, leaving the sport without its biggest star while it continues to cope with a downturn in the economy.
"I want him to come back and play," Finchem said Thursday in a conference call. "But we are going to be successful in '10. If Tiger is out for a couple of months or eight months of a year, we're going to have a successful year. ... It won't be at the same levels without our No. 1 player, there's no question about that. No sport would be at the same level without its No. 1 player.
"But I think the doom and gloom needs to go away."
Finchem said six of the highest-performing tournaments, which he based on net revenue donated to charity, have not 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.
Finchem said it was the biggest "curveball" he has dealt with in his 15 years as commissioner.
"I can't think of anything else that was more of a curveball," Finchem said during a brief break from media 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."
Finchem said the tour had no input on Woods' decision to step away, and he suggested that the salacious tales of infidelity likely would not be subject to discipline under the tour's "conduct unbecoming" clause.
The tour does not announce suspensions, 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."
Finchem also said he was not concerned with Woods being linked to a doctor being investigated because his assistant was found transporting drugs, including HGH, into the United States. The doctor, Anthony Galea, said he treated Woods with "blood spinning," which helped 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 sprinkled some good news into his conference call: The tour has renewed title sponsorship with the Sony Open in Honolulu and plans to work with the company on a 3-D broadcast; the same is planned for one of its playoff events, the BMW Championship outside Chicago.
That makes 10 title sponsors with new contracts this year - seven renewals and three new sponsors. Finchem also said the presenting 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 has shown to spike ratings - they were down about 50 per cent at 2008 tournaments he did not 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 US$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."