Tiger, Bones and bros: 13 observations from 14 straight days on Tour
PHOENIX, Ariz. and PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — That’s a double dateline, folks, and about all my brain can muster after 14 straight days of elevated events on the PGA Tour. Tour players call it a “circus,” and I’ve really felt that concept. It’s hard to imagine two successive events with more divergent vibes. Maybe going from The Open to Memphis or something. We can parse that out some other time. For now, here’s a notebook dump on everything we saw and heard these last two weeks, but didn’t really get to writing about.
1. Tiger Woods does look better
Shocker! You watched what we all watched. But did you walk up the hill behind him Sunday morning? I did. Woods popped out of the driving range bathroom around 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, his fourth straight day of Golf Without a Cart. That’s at least two more than he had played consecutively in the last nine months.
Woods could have easily borrowed a cart ride up the hill, no questions asked, but he hoofed it instead with strong, purposeful steps. If you want to understand Woods’ walking psyche right now, it’s all about taking hills straight on, and not at a side angle, so he elected for the wooden stairway rather than the meandering paved path. Bottom line: he’s making it look better than last year. By the time Woods walked up the dirt hill after 18 holes, his limp was a bit more pronounced, but nothing like what we saw at Augusta 10 months ago. Niall Horan followed close behind with a much worse limp of his own. It gets the mind dreaming about what Woods could do on a very flat Royal Liverpool in July.
2. Not everything is copacetic on Tour right now
While the PGA Tour may be winning various PR and legal battles against LIV Golf at the moment, not everything is perfect internally. Notably, how these $20 million designated events will look in the future. The idea of 50-man fields has clearly been pushed forward by a couple of big-name players, but if we are to trust Tour player director Rory McIlroy, these events will have more than that. Perhaps it will be 70-man fields, or maybe 100, but 144-player tournaments seem unlikely at the moment. The qualification for them could be based off the World Golf Ranking, the FedEx Cup, previous-year standing or even recent performances. Likely, it’ll be a mixture of all those things, which is to say, if you’re 100th on any list, you could be on the outside looking in. That isn’t sitting well with everyone, and was a topic of discussion during the Player Advisory Council meeting at Torrey Pines. I asked McIlroy point-blank for his thoughts on who should be involved in designated events and he said immediately “the best players,” before using the NBA’s growth model as an example where leaning into superstars can help make life good for the 12th man on the bench, too.
Is it foolish to use the NBA or other sports leagues as your inspiration for running a golf league? Or is that exactly what they should be doing? My suspicion is that the 150th-best golfer in the world does not like being thought of as the 12th man on an NBA team, scavenging for minutes. I genuinely look forward to asking McIlroy about it in the future.
3. RIP The Honda Classic
The overwhelming thought about this coming week’s event is just… sadness. The Honda used to be a premier tournament on the circuit but has been boxed out in recent years for numerous reasons. Tiger Woods hosts a tournament the week prior. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is a week later. Then comes the Players Championship. Some of the biggest names in the Jupiter are, well, they now play golf on a different tour. But most players have bowed out of playing Honda because there are just too many other bigger events on the spring schedule.
“By the time we get to Players, we’ll be beaten down,” Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie Ian Finnis told me. He’s headed home for a week before flying back for the Bay Hill event. The irony is Fleetwood and Finnis liked competing at PGA National. It’s a ball-striker’s course and Tommy Lad is a supreme ball-striker. On Sunday morning, Fino rattled off all the savvy strikers who have won there in the past, from Padraig Harrington to Sungjae Im, even Sepp Straka. But too many events is sometimes too many events. It sounds like Team Fleetwood will play the API, the Players, Valspar and the Match Play. You can’t play them all. (Plus, we need Fino at the Everton game vs. Aston Villa this weekend.)
4. LACC Preview
It’s just 4.5 miles, as the crow flies, from Riviera Country Club to Los Angeles Country Club — the site of this year’s U.S. Open. The USGA was out in full force to help introduce players to the course they’ll compete on in just four months. Tiger Woods was out there Monday morning getting his first look. Matt Fitzpatrick paid a visit in the afternoon. Adam Scott must have been there all day since he was pictured with Woods in the morning and was there holding court in the member’s bar that evening. Because of that proximity between two LA gems, the courses will no doubt be linked and compared. Which is better, Riv or LACC? We can hash that out in June.
As far as drivable par-4s with tiny greens go, I’ll give the upper-hand to LACC’s 6th over Riv’s 10th. Hitting a spinny wedge into this green is nightmare fuel.
5. Bo(nes) knows
It was the first time in my career covering consecutive Tour events, and I learned just how valuable that can be, mostly in the food department. When my coworker Claire Rogers told caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay that we’d be heading to LA from Phoenix, he gave us the rec of the week: Caffe Delfini. It’s an old-school Italian joint on the north side of Santa Monica that has changed how I think about Italian food for the near future. Burrata, bruschetta, lasagna, you name it. We tested the depth of the menu by ordering from Delfini three different times in the span of four nights.
It got me thinking just how many secrets Bones has trapped up in that mind of his. I am not the only one grateful for him sharing recs, either. When I went to pick up takeout from Delfini on Friday night, who was the first person I locked eyes with inside? Justin Thomas.
6. Ultimate golf viewing spots
It was a treat to see the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale for the first time. I stood next to the tee box throughout the first round and watched players crumble in the confusion of a stiff, chilly headwind. Like a lot of great sporting arenas, it was reassuring that something that holds so much hype in 2D on our televisions still hits in the same way in 3D. So much of Phoenix is exactly as it is billed.
Riviera is so different, but offers a stadium of its own on the 18th. It’s one of my favorite places to watch golf. Most of the entire grassy amphitheater sits in the sun, which helps offset the double-sweatshirt weather that LA in February tends to have. The hill behind 18 is among the best places to take a golf nap.
Not far away is the Tower Room above Riviera’s clubhouse that was completely empty during my final round exploring mission. The bay windows show the entirety of the course as it stretches off in the distance. There are quotes tacked on the walls from golf’s greatest figures — shoutout to Bobby Jones’ humor — and a Bose speaker system that is at least a decade old. Considering the wealthy clientele of RCC, one can imagine the five-figure poker hands playing out on the circular table as the sun sets.
7. The Phoenix Open is like going back to college
Walking in to the grounds at TPC Scottsdale shows so many past-lives many of us (I think?) have lived. The crowds take on the numbers of an SEC tailgate, the stench of spilled Coors Light and the overall lack of clothing worn by rambunctious 19-year-olds. Only most of them are much older.
Similar to the walk in at the Masters, the walk in at Phoenix has the same indescribable buzz that all big sporting events have. Groups of friends boast about their plans of attack. The morning wait for groups to reach 16 is basically a pep rally, with a DJ entertaining them to pass the time. By the afternoon in Phoenix, you have a couple hundred thousand people strewn out across the property doing nothing golfy. People drinking in the driving range bleachers despite no one hitting balls. Others camped out on the hill behind 9 green after play has come through. Why? Because it’s a nice sunny hill to drink on. TPC Scottsdale starts to look like one big university quad, with the dining area encircled by food trucks, a beer garden-styled lounge area and enough hospitality tents to declare the WM Phoenix Open its own temporary city. It all just encourages spending a day with friends doing mostly nothing, like we did in college. And you know what? Why not.
8. One is enough
One question I had on my mind all week in Phoenix was if we could have TWO such events on the PGA Tour. In theory, the answer would have to be yes, considering the record-setting attendance that takes place every single year. I was told by multiple Thunderbirds that there are representatives from each Tour event out in Phoenix trying to capture “the secret sauce.” But would that be welcomed? The answer isn’t just no, it’s absolutely not.
I chatted with Tour wives, players, caddies, employees and agents to see if they’d like to see another Phoenix Open-esque event and they all emphatically answered in the negative. When I asked Sam Burns’ wife, Caroline, she looked at me like I was crazy. The truth is, all parties embrace this scene once a year because they know it’s coming. They know when it’s ending. They know it’s worth it and they know it’s uncomfortable. But they definitely don’t want two of them.
9. Don’t cut corners
We learned many lessons in the last two weeks and chief among them is that cutting corners can lead to pain. Just ask one of the guys from the annual Running of the Bros, who saw an angle to gain on the leaders and eventually found the dumpster instead.
10. Influencers galore
The more elevated the designated events become, the more you can guarantee to hear about them via media, in press conferences, and also see them on Instagram. Golf influencers were out in full force the last few weeks, because that is how these events have decided they can earn attention. This fact of life is not necessarily good or bad. It just… is what it is. But one moment that made me chuckle involved Snappy Gilmore — the insta-famous guy who whips the club around his head and into the ball with just one arm — as he played up the 2nd hole during Wednesday’s Pro-Am. Patton Kizzire and Beau Hossler paused their short game sessions to watch the one-armed virtuoso play a pitch shot. They weren’t sure if the bit was just a tee shot thing or something Snappy does on every shot. After he played the pitch with one arm, sure enough, we saw influencing in action. Kizzire turned to the chipping green and tried pulling off the act, catching the chip thin and nearly sniping one of his competitors. Not so easy, is it!
11. Gambling is king
PGA Tour staffers paused play on the 16th hole momentarily on Tuesday of Phoenix Open week to place little white sensors around the perimeter of the green. They looked like little foot-long tiki torches set up in pairs. I wondered if they would light up the hole as the sun went down.
Instead, they were just reaffirming the edges of the green so that DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesar’s, etc., would have the most accurate information and as quickly as possible to maintain proper gambling protocols. I spoke with the staffer setting up the sensors and he said the triangulation cameras that surround greens are accurate down to “two or three inches” and the goal is get that range even tighter. He also admitted the Tour plans to move to as automated a process as possible in the coming years with its ShotLink system to remove all human error. That means ShotLink cameras — which, between the tee and green are operated by humans — running entirely on their own. But have they seen how errant Jordan Spieth can be?
I also chatted with one of the volunteers who keeps this gambling machine as honest as possible. He stood behind the tee while his wife sat up by the green, looking for his signal on where the ball might land. Their job is clear: pinpoint whereabout the ball is as quickly as possible. The goal, as he put it: 10 seconds or less — shoutout ’06 Phoenix Suns — uploaded to PGA Tour servers. It doesn’t leave much room for error, but when money is at stake, that’s the demand. By the time peak-Usain Bolt finishes a 100-meter dash, the Tour needs to know if that ball is in the bunker or just on the edge of the rough.
12. “Why me?”
The idea of Monday qualifiers may change in the next 12 months. There may be no space for them in designated events, where the purse is $20 million. We saw three local qualifiers play in the WM Phoenix Open, one of which was Andre Metzger, a 41-year-old who very seriously told me 8.5 years ago that he saw major championships in his future. That hasn’t happened, and Metzger has only twice Monday’d into a Tour event. But it begs the question, why hasn’t he made it? Why have other players made it? It’s a question that confuses just about everyone.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my caddie, my coach, my physio, my wife — why me?” Adam Hadwin told me during a practice round in Phoenix. It was a rare piece of vulnerability from a man who has made $16 million in his Tour career. Mackenzie Hughes’ caddie Jace Walker jumped in.
To use modern slang, Jace knows ball. Before he became a full-time looper, his game was good enough to kick around the mini tours. He once nearly qualified into the Phoenix Open himself until a guy named Luke List came along and kicked his low score out. After he heard Hadwin’s indecision, Walker directed his pointer finger to his temple and told Hadwin that the level of cocky-confidence he’s exuded throughout his career is the difference maker. Walker then recited stories from years ago where Hadwin and other Canadian pros who “made it” showed off their abilities as if they were universally known. Hitting flop shots on the first try that no one else could hit. Harmless things like that stood out over time to Walker while Hadwin didn’t even pay them any attention. It’s not exactly a concrete answer for Hadwin’s “Why me?” but I did like it.
13. The money cannot be ignored
Max Homa made $2.18 million for a solo second-place finish, one week after Nick Taylor did exactly the same. They each have previously won tournaments in California, but neither of those wins were as valuable as these runner-up finishes. Should we be stunned by the figures when we knew this was coming? Maybe not. But the sticker shock is still there, at least in this first season of designated events. Many Tour pros would consider $2.3 million a very good year. Now players can bag that total in a single week — without winning.
The money will be a talking point as players create their schedules to align with the biggest purses, but once the tournaments start, I think it fades into the background. Players are all just chasing a victory right up to the moment when it’s clear they won’t win. Then they’ll focus on the money. For some, they’ll eye up finishing 36th or better — that’s the $100,000 threshold. Others will have their hopes last longer, even all the way to the final stretch of holes. But when Taylor is trailing Scottie Scheffler by three with one hole to play, it’s Money Time. When Jon Rahm has guaranteed victory and Homa is lining up a 4-footer on 18 for solo second, it’s Money Time. Literally, Homa’s final stroke at the Genesis earned him an extra $400,000. Through a separate lens, he snatched $400,000 from Patrick Cantlay, who finished solo third. At some point, you can’t ignore it. “I’ve never thought of money,” Homa’s caddie Joe Greiner said, “but we are playing for so much money that you do have to think of it.”
I appreciated the candor. Yes, it is possible to be humble and revealing at the same time.