On eve of its biggest event, PGA Tour still battling stiff headwinds

Scottie Scheffler of the United States lines up a putt on the 17th green during a practice round prior to THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 12, 2024 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The Players Championship is half golf tournament, half PGA Tour pep rally. This has always been the case — or at least is has been at least since 1982, when the event was first contested at the Tour’s now-immaculate home track, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass — but seemingly every year the championship adds new wrinkles and accoutrements that help remind fans, players and media where they are.

Attendees who enter the property through the Davis Love III (former champion!) gate are serenaded with audio highlights (“Be the right club today!”) from Players Championships past. Shuffle through security and turn the corner toward the golf course and it’s not long before the top of the 77,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival-style clubhouse comes into view, a staggeringly large nod, complete with vaulted wood ceilings and iron chandeliers, to the successes — some might say excesses — of the PGA Tour. On Tuesday evening, country star Cole Swindell will entertain fans on a stage constructed on the island-green par-3 17th hole. Swindell is sure to play his 2015 hit “You Should Be Here,” which would be fitting, because that’s exactly the message the Tour wants to convey about its flagship tournament (really, all its tournaments), perhaps this week more than ever.   

If you’re just joining us in the wild world of professional golf, these are challenging and uncertain times for the Tour. As LIV Golf and its wealthy Saudi backers have stormed onto the scene and flipped the pro game on its head, the Tour has found itself in an unfamiliar position: playing defense. Yes, it recently inked an impactful deal with Strategic Sports Group that will result in up to $3 billion in investment, and, no, the Tour isn’t in any immediate threat of LIV Golf swallowing up it fanbase. But the absence of several of the game’s biggest stars at Sawgrass this week — Jon Rahm, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, to name a just a few — is a stark reminder of where things stand, not to mention an inconvenient truth when it comes to the Players Championship trying to lay claim to convening the strongest field in golf.

This week’s event also comes in the third month of what to this point has been a relatively low-wattage year on Tour. Before world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler blitzed the field at Bay Hill last week, four first-time winners — in Nick Dunlap, Matthieu Pavon, Jake Knapp and Austin Eckroat — had prevailed in the first nine of events of 2024. Each was a great story in his own right but they’re not the kind of names who might entice more casual fans to flip on CBS or NBC on a Sunday afternoon. Further complicating matters for the Tour is evidence that fans are feeling some degree of apathy or disillusionment as the game’s stars have been divvied over two tours. If social-media commentary is any indication, Tour watchers also have been turned off by the squabbling among golf’s power brokers and incessant chatter over eye-popping signing bonuses and other forms of compensation.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan gets that, and so do his new team of SSG advisors. Three weeks ago, at the Tour Policy Board’s first meeting with SSG, fan engagement dominated the agenda, Monahan told the media Tuesday in his annual State of the Tour press conference at TPC Sawgrass.

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“They’re tired of hearing about conflict, money and who is getting what,” Monahan said of Tour fans. “They want to watch the world’s best golfers compete in tournaments with history, meaning, and legacies on the line at venues they recognize and love.”

He added: “Our business thrives when together we’re all laser focused on delivering for our fans. If we fail on that front, we fail on every front.”

To that end, Monahan said, the Tour has committed to imbuing its telecasts with more shots, data and mic’d-up segments, and to improving the “fan journey” for spectators onsite. The Tour also is opening a new production studio in 2025 that, Monahan said, will “bring live golf and other live content to our fans in a more dynamic way, bringing them closer to our players and closer to our sport.”

That all sounds promising, but even a production directed by Christopher Nolan couldn’t make up for the fact that the world’s best players remain divided, which has meant weaker fields from Palm Springs to Palm Beach. Monahan insisted that negotiations with LIV’s funder, the Saudi Public Investment Fund, are “accelerating” but that “it’s going to take time,” adding, “I see a positive outcome for the PGA Tour and the sport as a whole.” You can forgive those fans who might be feeling less optimistic than Monahan after nine months of PGA Tour-LIV talks have produced no substantial updates.   

When Monahan was asked about his reaction to Rahm signing with LIV and whether the Tour is at risk of losing more stars before the Tour and LIV might strike a peace deal, Monahan largely dodged the question, saying, in part, “I’m going to focus on the things that I control and we are as an organization and we are as a leadership team and we are as a board, so that’s when I’m focused on.”

The inquiring reporter pressed, but Monahan wasn’t having it, saying tersely, “I just answered your question about what my focus is.”

When Scheffler appeared in the press room a couple of hours later, I asked him whether players are concerned about fans feeling disenchanted by the state of pro golf. “If the fans are upset, then look at the guys that left,” he said. “We had a tour, we were all together, and the people that left are no longer here. At the end of the day, that’s where the splintering comes from. As far as our Tour goes, like I said, we’re doing our best to create the best product for the fans, and that’s really where we’re at.”

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Just as you can’t blame fans for having grown tired of the angst in pro golf, perhaps we also shouldn’t blame players for having grown tired of having to answer questions about it. Until the PGA Tour and LIV arrive on a path forward together — this is assuming that day comes — the game will continue to live in a gray area, with every tournament outside of the majors having to accept the new reality of fields with some stars but not all of them. That includes the Tour’s marquee event, which will decided this week without the reigning U.S. Open and PGA Championship winners.   

“I don’t think it helps the tournament,” Xander Schauffele said of Rahm and Brooks Koepka’s absence at Sawgrass. “I mean, I think you would like to have those players playing, in an ideal world, but I feel like we’re sort of beating a dead horse in this media room a little bit. The few times I click on the golf to read, we’re definitely beating a dead horse. Everyone kind of knew what was going to happen when they made a decision, and this was probably the highest probability chance of the outcome, which is to have people on different tours at the time. I know the guys are working on getting everyone back together, but in the meantime, I’m kind of on the page of it is what it is.”

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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