PGA Tour Begins to Pay a Price For Tiger Woods’s Transgressions

The troubles facing the professional-golf tour without Tiger Woods will be on display when the annual tournament tees off at the Torrey Pines course in San Diego this week: Ticket sales are down, fewer hospitality tents have been sold, and the title sponsor had to be lured with a cut-rate price.

It is a harbinger of what the PGA Tour may be without its most popular player. Three of the Tour’s 46 tournaments scheduled for 2010 don’t have a lead corporate sponsor, nor do 13 of next year’s tournaments. Television viewership of the first two events of this year’s Tour tumbled.

In past years, Mr. Woods, the game’s most popular player, usually skipped the first three tournaments and began play on the San Diego tournament’s seaside course, perched on scenic cliffs overlooking the Pacific. As Mr. Woods’s opener, San Diego became one of the highest-profile early events of each PGA Tour season. This year, Mr. Woods, caught up in a sex scandal, is on leave from the game, with no word on when he will return. Without his unmatched star power, the value of Tour sponsorships, through which companies cover most tournament prizes, could be sharply lower. And without a rich flow of cash from those sponsorships, the PGA Tour’s economic model is cracked.

“It’s a fairly tough conversation for the PGA Tour right now,” said Tony Ponturo, former director of sports marketing for major sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev and a board member of the women’s LPGA Tour. “Maybe the marketplace doesn’t allow for million-dollar first prizes anymore.”

Farmers Insurance Group, a unit of Zurich Financial Services, swooped in last week and agreed to a last-minute, discounted deal that pays the PGA Tour about $3.5 million to sponsor the Torrey Pines event. That is about half of what General Motors previously paid to sponsor what long was known as the Buick Invitational. GM, in financial trouble, ended its PGA tour contracts last summer.