The new normal on the PGA Tour? Focusing on golf amid the unknowns

Rory McIlroy assesses his options ahead of a shot during Thursday's first round of the Canadian Open.

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TORONTO — There was always going to be something calming about Thursday. During a week of upheaval in the golf world, where the PGA Tour announced plans for a seismic change to men’s pro golf, we learned one thing: No one knows everything. And everyone knows very little. So the gift that Thursday offered was something of virtual certainty: tee times. Only Mother Nature can screw those up. 

Two-time defending champ Rory McIlroy went off with Justin Rose (and alternate Omar Uresti) at 7:33 a.m., and it wasn’t long before the news of the week came up. 

“Rosie and I said, ‘All right, no chatting until lunch so that we can actually concentrate on what we’re doing out there,’” McIlroy said after an opening 71. “We started to get in a conversation walking down the 1st and we’re like, no, let’s stop this. Let’s just focus on our golf and we’ll say what we want to say when we get inside.”

rory mcilroy
Here’s how the PGA Tour looked the day after everything changed
By: Sean Zak

Sometimes, PGA Tour shots need to take precedent over PGA Tour thoughts. Inside the ropes over outside. McIlroy admitted there’s more pressure off the course these days. The most uncomfortable he said he’s felt the past 12 months was Wednesday, indoors, sitting at another press conference podium. 

That conversation Rose and McIlroy nipped in the bud is bound to become a snapshot of the next few weeks on the PGA Tour. Players exercising patience, trying to focus on what they can control: their golf. But surrounding all of it, of course, is an unspecific future. At most tournament sites, there are about 140 players and about 140 caddies. In other words, there are a lot of ideas being shared. 

What is the definition of a chairman? Who reports to whom? What should reintegration look like?

Maverick McNealy’s golf has been a struggle lately, but his stock has never been higher as a talker. He impressed many of his peers in the players meeting when he spoke up more with a statement than a question for Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. In short: I hope you guys are sure about just how different it will be as a for-profit company than a 501(c)(6).

The truth: incredibly different. The potential revenue streams, payment schemes and operational decisions are wildly different for for-profit companies. The mind races. That’s human nature. So different is the ecosystem that it’s almost irresponsible to make guesses as to what it will look like. Which might explain why one of the final few paragraphs of McNealy’s lengthy social media missive was written this way: 

“I do not want to answer any more questions about this. I know so little. And I think further discussion of this will only hurt the Tour and our goals for this week.”

To Mav’s point from Tuesday, the for-profit future can alter every structure of pro golf as we knew it. Could players get paid individually for how often they appear on Tour broadcasts? The Player Impact Program currently covers that to an extent, but aspects of it were always kept a bit vague. Could we see PGA Tour player-shirts worn by fans, like the kind we see across town at a Toronto Blue Jays game? Who’s ready to buy the Rory McIlroy home kit for when the Open visits Northern Ireland again in 2025? How about player equity in this new organization? It’s a point that has been elevated by Harry Higgs, both in the player meeting and in casual conversations each day that has followed. 

The news of this Saudi golf investment comes fresh off the heels of major Saudi investment in professional soccer. Thirty-five-year-old French footballer Karim Benzema just signed a contract to play in Saudi Arabia for $4.12 million PER WEEK. He’d scoff at Dustin Johnson’s megawatt deal. Despite that, the Saudis didn’t win the Lionel Messi chase. An MLS club in Miami did. Apple TV+ did as well, since they own the TV rights to MLS games. Messi, reportedly, will earn a share of the streaming revenue partnership between Apple and the MLS.

Whether any of that soccer talk matters to pro golf, those topics are the kind being discussed between players right now, in the locker room, in the lunch room, on the driving range and even on the course. It’s all a bit too soon to muzzle fanciful ideas. What would Tiger Woods’ value be in this new world order, had he been born just 15 years later? That, too, was part of an inquisitive conversation between players outside the clubhouse Thursday afternoon. 

As we begin to look forward, days like Thursday are bound to feel like a reprieve. Corey Conners shot 67 and became the immediate favorite for a Canuck to win his national open for the first time since 1954. FedEx Cup position comes back to the fore, with just nine weeks to decide who cracks the all-important top 50. Chesson Hadley, when he wasn’t acknowledging that he’d like to be rewarded for his PGA Tour loyalty, pointed out he’s “like a millionth in the FedEx Cup” race. That’s why he’s playing this week.

Next week’s U.S. Open will be weird on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, as we get our third, fully integrated tournament of 2023. Many words will be said and many quotes will be kept. Some are bound to reverberate for weeks to come. But then a major championship begins on Thursday and nothing matters more than the number of double bogeys made.

A week later, the intensity and brutality of a U.S. Open setup might be a fond memory, as players head to the Travelers Championship, in Connecticut, home to the U.S. Senator most outspoken and skeptical about the principal agreement announced this week. Will we know more then? Saudi PIF Yasir Al-Rumayyan said it will take “just a matter of weeks” before Monahan said triumphantly, “We’re going to get that done.”

In many ways, PGA Tour weeks will play out similar to what we saw last year. Players at the 2022 Canadian Open were constantly asked about the launch of LIV Golf, in London. Players at the 2022 Scottish Open were asked about LIV players being added to an already full field. Players at the 2022 BMW Championship were asked to explain how a schedule with designated events is better for everyone, even non-designated events. Just a few months ago, we demanded players weigh in on the value of tournament cuts, a debate that may not be relevant anymore. These are times of change, but in every one of those weeks, we eventually flip a switch back to the golf.

The type of player who can thrive amid all of it? Well, that’s just another unknown.

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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