Exhausted by pro golf’s politicking and power grabs? You’re not alone

Max Homa of the United States signs autographs on the ninth green during a practice round prior to THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 13, 2024 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Max Homa at the Players Championship on Wednesday.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — If you strolled the grounds at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on what was a warm and breezy Wednesday afternoon, it was difficult to detect any sense of the turmoil that has roiled the men’s professional game over the last nearly three years. Down on the range, the brainy instructor Sean Foley, smartly clad in a black cardigan, worked on lag and impact positions with the athletic South African, Eric van Rooyen, as Keegan Bradley, just up the path toward the clubhouse, signed a football for a young fan in a flat-brimmed cap.

Further up the walkway, weathered caddie Fluff Cowan came barreling, head down, off the 18th green with C.T. Pan’s bag strapped to his back.

“What the hell you still caddying for?” quipped a Mich Ultra-sipping spectator along the rope line.

Not missing a beat, Cowan shot back, “I was asking myself the same thing.”

Those within earshot howled.

Good times? No doubt! But complicated ones, too, because under the surface of all this pre-tournament revelry is the powerful undercurrent of cash-fueled power grabs and politicking that has been ripping through pro golf and leaving some percentage of fans, players and more than a few ink-stained wretches feeling winded, if not outright gassed. Remember the halcyon days of the Players Championship when the pre-tournament story lines centered around scripting, weather patterns and how many balls the field might rinse at 17?

Cute, right? Now, the early-week chatter is dominated by talk of negotiations…and equity grants…and return on investment…and the job security of the very guy who traditionally has used this week, just a few 5-irons from the PGA Tour’s gleaming headquarters, to take a chest-beating victory lap. That would be Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, who on Tuesday morning sat at a dais in front of a packed media center and half-answered questions about whether, in the wake of the Tour’s shocking June 6 framework agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, any members of his Policy Board had called on him to resign. “I don’t think that would be a surprise to anybody,” Monahan allowed, “given the events of last summer.”

Ah yes, the events of last summer, when Monahan and a handful of his most trusted lieutenants covertly brokered a deal that would put an end to the litigation between the PGA Tour and PIF and begin discussions about how the two parties might find a pathway forward together. Nine months later, though, fans, media and even the players — many of whom still feel scorned by Monahan’s secrecy — still know little about the status of the PGA Tour-LIV talks. What we do know is that for the time being, at least, the best players in the world will convene only four times a year, at the majors. Those same players might be richer for it, thanks to fat LIV contracts and swelling purses and bonuses on the PGA Tour, but the game and fans are undoubtedly poorer for it. And candidly, yeah, it’s all gotten a bit exhausting.

Rory McIlroy, for one, has noticed. (He’s skilled at noticing things.) “Fans are fatigued of what’s going on in the game,” he said before his Wednesday morning practice round at Sawgrass. “I think we need to try to reengage the fans and reengage them in a way that the focus is on the play and not on talking about equity and all the rest of it.”

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Fan engagement is one of the Tour’s new favorite buzz phrases. However you felt about how Monahan presented himself on Tuesday morning, he made it plainly clear that tending to fans’ needs and desires is the new job No. 1 for him, the Tour board and their new team of investors from Sports Strategic Group. Toward the end of his opening remarks, Monahan found the camera in the back of the room and stared deep into the lens as politicians do when appealing for votes. “I want to speak directly to our fans, our most important constituent, and ones that maybe haven’t felt their voices heard lately,” the commissioner began. “All of this talk about investment and growth, I want you to know that we’re focusing that energy on bringing forth the most competitive and entertaining Tour possible for you. It’s my commitment and it’s our players’ commitment.”

Thing is, it’s not just fans who have tired of the money talk and corporatespeak. Many players fall into this camp, too. You may choose to roll your eyes when handsomely paid pros answer a merger-and-acquisitions- or equity-grant-related query with some version of “What do I know? I’m just a golfer.” But, well, they are just golfers. Just as others might “just be” store clerks or mechanics or zookeepers. These golfers — at least not the ones who have remained loyal to the PGA Tour — didn’t willfully insert themselves into a Billions script. It just kind of happened.

As Viktor Hovland said Wednesday when asked if he still has confidence in Monahan and how he has steered the Tour: “I play golf for a living. I don’t know exactly what should have been done, because at the end of the day I don’t have all the information, and I don’t know that — I can’t just say, okay, this is what exactly needs to be done or should have been done.”

When I asked Justin Thomas about whether he has been feeling fatigued with the incessant speculation and questions about the Tour’s future, he said, “I’ve just tried to kind of remove myself from most of the conversations because I just don’t — I haven’t found the benefit to it. I’m just, I don’t want to say hoping for the best — that sounds kind of hopeless — but just trying to remember or help look at the bigger, better things going on.”

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But knowing that he’s going to be asked weighty questions, I asked Thomas, doesn’t he feel any obligation to stay as informed as he can be?

“No,” he told me, beginning to smile. “Maybe that’s the college dropout in me. I mean, y’all know I will be the first person to tell you guys exactly how I feel and speak my mind, and I don’t want to be a robot up here and say anything. But at the same time, I’m very uncomfortable talking about things that I don’t really know much about.” He added: “At the end of the day, I just want to play great golf and win golf tournaments, whether I’m playing for one dollar or 10 million or a billion dollars.”

Billion-dollar contracts to play golf? Don’t laugh. Could happen. But it also has become increasingly clear that fans don’t care about Tour-pro comp, or at least they care a lot less about it than they used to. They don’t flip on NBC or CBS or the CW to watch players raise checks, they tune in to watch them bomb drives and spin wedges and hole putts. It’s not all that complicated, or at least it shouldn’t be.

As Max Homa put it Wednesday, “We could just do a better job of just shutting up and playing some golf and doing our best to entertain.”

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