Rory McIlroy reveals PGA Tour’s ‘problem’ — and fixes that could help

Rory McIlroy practices ahead of the 2024 Players Championship.

Rory McIlroy shared his thoughts on what can ail a member organization Wednesday from the Players Championship.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

If anything has been clear about the PGA Tour in 2024, it’s that the Signature Events have lacked a touch of their expected juice.

Even Rory McIlroy, who helped pitch the concept to PGA Tour members at the 2022 Delaware meeting, acknowledged as much.

“If you look at the leaderboards, you look at the ratings, I felt like they really, really worked in 2023, and for whatever reason, they’re not quite capturing the imagination this year compared to last year,” McIlroy said Wednesday at the Players Championship.

McIlroy’s theory for why has been a common gripe about pro golf over the past two-plus years.

“I think it’s because fans are fatigued of what’s going on in the game,” McIlroy said. “I think we need to try to reengage the fan 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.”

Golf’s civil war and the uncertainty that has come with it has certainly taken a toll on interest in the game at the professional level.

The final day of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the first of a reimagined version of the longtime Tour stop at golf’s most panoramic venues as one of the $20 million Signature Events, was wiped out by a storm.

That helped LIV Golf, who played the final round of its event in Mexico on the same Sunday without competition from its established rival, to earn its highest rating ever. But that number was still just 432,000 viewers, less than a quarter of what Saturday’s Pebble coverage attracted, which was still about half of what the Pro Bowl drew that same weekend.

Another reminder of audience fatigue came last month, when McIlroy, perhaps the game’s best draw aside from Tiger Woods, joined Max Homa and LPGA stars Lexi Thompson and Rose Zhang for The Match IX in primetime. Despite a novel concept of men and women playing together, that telecast delivered the lowest ratings in The Match’s six-year history.

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It’s clear, as more players like Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton leave the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, seeing the game’s best divided among rival tours just isn’t capturing much attention from fans.

Much of the problem, McIlroy thinks, has to do with how the PGA Tour, which is an entertainment product at the end of the day, packages its ideas to players first and fans second.

“This is the problem with a members’ organization,” said McIlroy, who resigned from the PGA Tour Policy Board in November. “Things are created for the members. Then once those things are created, you’ve got to go sell those things to fans, sponsors, media. To me, that seems a little backwards.

“I think what needs to happen is you need to create things for the fans, for the sponsors, for the media, and then you have to go sell that to the players, tell them to get on board with that, because if they get on board and we’re all part of the business now, if the business does better, we do better.”

McIlroy also thinks a change to that philosophy is coming soon to the PGA Tour.

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The Tour closed on an investment deal with the Strategic Sports Group in January that will see the consortium of sports owners invest at least $1.5 billion and as much as $3 billion in the PGA Tour’s commercial ventures under the newly formed PGA Tour Enterprises. The Tour also is continuing to negotiate with the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund on the framework agreement announced in June.

That money, McIlroy said, could be used to help improve the product for the fans.

“From limited conversations with SSG and sort of what they’re thinking, I think the on-site experience is something that they’re going to heavily invest in,” he said. “I don’t think every week has to be like a Phoenix Open, but I think having it be more of an event.

“You think of like Formula 1, for example, and it’s like, you go there and it’s a weekend of racing, but there’s so much else going on, and you get 400,000 people in through the gates on any given weekend. So creating more events like that where it’s a way to enhance the on-site experience for a fan.

“Even fans that don’t necessarily watch golf week in, week out, but you try to bring them to a tournament, get them introduced, and I think that’s one part.”

McIlory also referenced the Tour’s television product, which should be bolstered by the coming PGA Tour Studios.

But then he pivoted to what he called the “lowest hanging fruit.”

“If I were a fan, I would want to watch the best players compete against each other week in, week out,” McIlroy said. “I think if you just unified the game and brought us all back together in some way, that would be great for the fans, I would imagine.

“I think that would then put a positive spin on everything that’s happened here, and like okay, get together, we all move forward, and I think people could get excited about that.”

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