Tour Confidential: Record scoring! Record purses! And crypto country clubs
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we break down how scoring records fell at Kapalua, a massive USGA announcement, how private clubs could look in the future, and more.
1. Cam Smith won the Sentry Tournament of Champions, in Maui, on Sunday with an eye-popping score of 34-under, beating Jon Rahm by just one stroke. The story of the week is in there: yep, the scoring, in particular in the third round when the 38-player field averaged nearly six under par. Justin Thomas, one of two players to shoot a course-record 12 under on Saturday, described the birdie bonanza this way: “Golf fans just need to understand what causes scores. I think everybody, they just see, ‘Oh, they’re hitting it so far now, that’s why it’s so low.’ It’s like no, it’s so low because it’s so soft and if you give us soft conditions, fairways this big, course this short, we’re going to shoot nothing.” Does JT have it right? Do gettable conditions have more impact on scoring than the distance boom?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): There’s no question, just don’t let JT downplay one half of this debate. A few times a year, a tricky course will be set up firm, with greens Stimping at 14. Muirfield Village is a great example. Players have to work harder, caddies have to work harder. Scoring is just plain hard. Generally, when conditions are soft, the aerial assault is a game of darts with these robots swinging the clubs. And when they hit it as far as they do, it’s assault with wedges only. That’s more of the issue.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): For sure. That’s why Tiger-proofing did anything but. And why just adding distance now mostly just narrows the pool of potential winners (while having terrible trickle down effects in the amateur game). The better answer is through great architecture and thoughtful setup that tests without becoming tricked up. Easier said than done.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Right, Josh. Nick Price said this in 1998: If you want to Tiger-proof a course, make it shorter. The best course I’ve seen for the pros in years was Royal Melbourne. Short, bouncy, curvey.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Sure. There’s also yardage and there’s yardage. The greens were soft this week at Kapalua. But the fairways were still plenty slopey. Some of the long holes played a whole bunch shorter because balls were rolling 30, 40, 60 yards once they landed. At Pebble Beach you can’t really say the same, especially when it’s 53 degrees and foggy. The boring answer here is the right one: It’s a combination of factors! But an incredibly wide course with extra rollout in the fairways that’s also soft on the greens is basically the perfect way to generate low scores.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): Well yes, JT is 100 percent right. Soft conditions help low scores. But, as Sean pointed out, it sure doesn’t hurt to play from soft conditions with a wedge in hand. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
2. World No. 1 Jon Rahm, fresh off not playing since the middle of October, looked like he had hardly skipped a beat at the Tournament of Champions, peeling off rounds of 66, 66, a course-record 61 and an 66, only to not win on the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Four rounds into 2022, let’s set a prop bet: Rahm will win over/under four times this year. And please explain your answer!
Zak: Under! Only once in his professional life has Rahm won four times in a calendar year, and that’s inclusive of both European and PGA Tour schedules. That’s a lot of winning. There are too many good players to consistently beat like that. Disclaimer: I’d love to watch a 6-win season!
Bamberger: I don’t know. Three more? I could see it. I’ll take four.
Sens: Well, since I picked him to win the Grand Slam a few weeks ago, I should prolly stick with ‘over.’
Dethier: Under. It’s damn hard to win four times on Tour! He’ll win three, though, which is pretty close.
Colgan: It’s about time somebody took over golf for a period of time again. If anybody’s gonna do it, it’ll be Rahm. Give me the over.
3. The USGA, in Mike Whan’s first major move as the governing body’s new CEO, announced three blockbuster changes to the U.S. Women’s Open. Among the enhancements: more signature venues — including Riviera in 2026, Inverness in 2027 and Pinehurst No. 2 in a back-to-back with the men in 2029 — and a boost in purse size, from $5.5 million last year to $10 million this year, with a promise to take it soon to $12 million. What is the biggest potential ripple effect from these announcements?
Zak: Events love to boast a big purse size. Events love having the “biggest purse in golf.” All it will do is continue to raise the bar for the second biggest purse in golf. And the third and the fourth. Sure, adding a presenting sponsor technically cheapens the name of the event, but if that’s what it takes for women’s golf to move closer to equal pay for its championships, it is such a small, small price to pay.
Sens: The money is the least interesting part of it. Staging events at cooler venues makes for more compelling competitions, which draws more eyeballs. Which the women’s game deserves.
Dethier: The biggest potential ripple effect is that the U.S. Women’s Open cements itself as the biggest event in all of women’s golf, that more people are eager to watch them play familiar and/or intriguing golf courses and therefore more people stick with the game both as a televised product and as a pastime at home. That’s best-case, of course! But the USGA is doing the right thing in embracing the women’s game wholeheartedly. It’s a non-profit, after all, with the stated goal of growing the game. When it comes to getting girls and women involved, there’s still plenty of work to do. A few million bucks to the best women on the planet is just a start.
Bamberger: BIGGEST ripple effect? More exposure for the women’s game, which means more girls, all over the world, taking up the game.
Colgan: You’re right on, Sean. Purse payouts, exposure, growth — they all come incrementally. Big changes mean smaller changes, too. In this case, the purse jump has the potential to reimagine the way we view prize money for women. That’s a damn good thing, and I’d say presents a pretty significant ripple effect.
4. Week 1 of the new PGA Tour rules changes is in the books, and a wrinkle has revealed itself with the use of Tour-approved yardage books, and the ban on the formerly-allowed greens books. While most players said they were OK with the change, honesty will be in play, as there will be little to prevent a player or caddie from simply taking the old info and penciling it in the new books. Cause for concern?
Zak: Golf’s honor code should win out here. This is a player-driven rule, and players don’t want their reputation tarnished if any little advantage they (or their caddie) creates becomes a stinky rumor. The reliance upon that endless amount of information should cede in importance to players’ routines, too.
Bamberger: I agree. When guys cheat, it’s usually because the opportunity presents itself, not because it’s premeditated.
Sens: In the end, you still have to hit the shots and stroke the putts. I suppose some might try to take advantage, but even if they do, will it have a profound impact on results? I doubt it.
Dethier: I’m with Sens. Does it really matter? They holed plenty of birdie putts this week, theoretically without the books. If you give golfers access to extra resources, they’ll use them, but I’m not convinced they actually help these finely-tuned pros that much. I hope they don’t cheat, because cheating is a bummer, but I’m not concerned about any potential advantage. Read the putt, hit the putt.
Colgan: I’m not too worried about it. We rely on honesty all the time in the golf, I don’t see why this would be any different. And when honesty doesn’t work? Karma is a powerful beast.
5. LinksDAO, a virtual community of golf-lovers with a nose for disruption is aiming to shake things up in the real world by reimagining the country club. Central to LinksDAO’s plans, as reported by our Josh Sens, is to buy a Top 100-caliber course and transform it into a modern golf and leisure club: a playground for “a global community of thousands of enthusiasts.” This crowdfunded purchase would be made with cryptocurrency, and the collective said it has already raised $11 million. In your mind, does this approach to club-building have legs?
Zak: Totally! People have more money, more work freedom, a greater ability to travel and more enhanced communication practices than ever before. Investing it in tangible things, experiences, or community building has also become increasingly popular with the best generation: the millennials (wink, wink). It makes perfect sense. Side note: They’ll need a lot more than $11 million to create or buy a Top 100-caliber course.
Sens: Raising the money to buy and renovate a course strikes me as the easy part. The tougher part will be delivering on the other disruptive pledges these groups are making. LinksDAO, like other recently formed groups in this space, say they want to upend stodgy club conventions and create a new, more egalitarian culture. And they plan to do it by giving every member a say. Sounds great in theory. But what happens when the tough decisions start. Which property, exactly, do you buy? Who gets the premiere tee times? Where do you cap membership? And on. No matter what currency people spend, no matter what platform they communicate on, in the end, they’re still people, driven by ego and self-interest. Prone to power grabs both large and petty. Some are quite nice. Many are insufferable. That, in my opinion, is where the bigger challenges lie for LinksDAO and the others. At some point, as they go about trying to reimagine the old country club model and bring this dreamy ‘community’ from the ether to the real world, they’re going to run up against human nature. Crypto financing and utopian talk do not alone solve for that. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
Bamberger: Yes, it has legs. People are tired of class distinction in every walk of life. “You’re good enough for us; you’re not.” Here, if you can pay, you can play. Look at how well the Pebble Beaches and the Pinehursts are doing. This is an extension of that, with less tradition, and lower walls. It’s like hoodies. That’s not a debate anymore. Of COURSE you can wear a hoodie. This is another version of that. This is, Come on in.
Dethier: We’ve seen all manner of country club reinvention in the last decade-plus, and this is another version of that. I welcome further reinvention! With that said, while I’m no Luddite I think these projects have raised more questions than answers, so far. The crypto gang is great at talking a big game, and there are a lot of them, and they are worth a lot of money. How that actually translates to a more welcoming experience when you pull up to a course? I’m eager to see.
Colgan: This particular idea seems like a nightmarish web of legal and logistical hurdles, but as far as disrupting the traditional country club structure is concerned, consider me a supporter. It’s about time somebody found some success with a different approach.
6. Equipment release season is upon us! Putting specific brands aside, what’s one tip you’ve learned through your own gear-shopping experiences that you’d give a friend who’s looking to boost his or her bag?
Zak: Figure out your wedges. Whether it’s two of them or three, figure out which gaps you’d like to create. They’re not a drastic monetary investment, either. Couple that with some time investment and you will be a better golfer. Simple as that.
Sens: Get a putter that really fits your eye. Makes you feel good over the ball. It might be an ancient Billy Barou gathering dust in your grandfather’s garable. It might be the latest whizbang design. The tech matters much less than how it makes you feel.
Bamberger: If you have something you like and know, keep it. Don’t let anybody shame you out of it. Those people are actually talking about themselves.
Dethier: Get fit for driver. (Get fit for irons, too!) Plenty of my golfing friends have trouble off the tee and it’s only exacerbated by the fact that they’re playing too stiff or too whippy a driver shaft. Golf is more fun when you can find the ball off the tee. Invest in the big stick.
Colgan: When it comes time to get fit, make sure you feel good about your game. Don’t go in the middle of the swing change. Don’t go when you haven’t swung a club in two months. Feel good about your game when it comes time to get gear. You’ll help your wallet AND your game in the long-term.