Tour Confidential: Will Z’s return, appearance fees, Saturday-night finishes
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 Will Zalatoris’ near-miss at the Farmers Insurance Open, appearance fees and the PGA Tour’s first Saturday finish.
1. It was close but no cigar for Will Zalatoris at the Farmers Insurance Open, at Torrey Pines, where the 25-year-old lost in a playoff to Luke List. After a memorable run in 2020 and most of last year while still a member of the Korn Ferry Tour, Zalatoris added 15 pounds in the offseason and tweaked his gear, adding a 46-inch driver. Zalatoris has already proven he can contend in majors, finishing runner-up at last year’s Masters. What does this performance, at another major venue, tell you about his potential?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: I’m surprised to see a player that young and that talented with such an unnatural-looking putting stroke. I guess the player that comes to mind for me is young Charlie Howell, or young Jodie Mudd. They were saying on TV how hard he works on his putting. Maybe he’s working too hard on it. I wonder how he putts as a lefty.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): This weekend reinforced what we already knew about him. Epic talent who rises to the moment. But battles serious putting woes. That’s one of those, Yes, but otherwise, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln situations. Tough to overcome. But it can be done. Maybe he’ll be the next Bernhard Langer.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): I was reminded watching Saturday that Zalatoris told me he’d played most of 2021 with a caved-in putter face. At the time, he was hopeful the shift would pay major dividends of his struggling play around the green. That doesn’t quite seem to be the case. I have no doubt he’ll breakthrough with a win soon, but to do so at the majors, he’s going to need a similar breakthrough with the flatstick.
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): There are a handful of players who strike it so well that they can still win despite their putter. Adam Scott is one, and he’s had a fabulous career. But you can’t ever help but assess his career with “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” It’s WAY too early to assign these comps to Zalatoris, but the evidence is building.
Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): I love his confidence. He has a little Koepka in him. Earlier in the week Will Z talked about how his game is suited for the majors; on Saturday evening, he said he feels supremely comfortable in big moments. Before Saturday, he said he could not remember losing in a playoff. Now, he just needs to take the next step and win.
2. As the Tour heads to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a host of American stars will tee it up at the Saudi International on the Asian Tour, which recently received a $200 million investment from Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments, a group that also has visions of a forming a tour of its own. What’s your read on the A-list players competing in Saudi Arabia? Much ado about nothing? Or is the beginning of a bigger shakeup?
Bamberger: I don’t think the Saudi investors are looking to order off the kiddie menu here. This will get bigger and bigger and messier and messier. Maybe golf will be better for it. Right now, I can’t see it.
Sens: That’s well said, Michael. Any rival league has always needed a reach tipping point where enough big names sign on to create irreversible momentum. Seems like it’s getting there.
Colgan: It’s certainly much ado about something, but I wouldn’t rush to connect those dots just yet. It’s hard to know how much overlap the event and the rumored tour have, largely because we know nothing about the rumored tour.
Zak: It is of course the beginning of a bigger shakeup. This will be the strongest field in the history of the Saudi International and the weakest field at Pebble in more than a decade. And the PGA Tour, despite not wanting to, had to play ball a bit. The list of players was too great. All of that is some sort of momentum.
Bastable: If you’re looking for potential defectors, yes, the Saudi field would be a good place to start. Greg Norman’s league hasn’t formed as quickly as once expected, or promised, but make no mistake, it is taking shape, and Norman and Co. are lining up players. Second half of this year should be very interesting indeed.
3. Rory McIlroy, in discussing the Saudi International, the appearance payments that come with it, and the potential new tour, told reporters at the Dubai Desert Classic that while he couldn’t fault a player for taking guaranteed money, he said: “It’s the competitive integrity to me that’s one of the biggest issues here, right. It’s like how hard are guys going to compete when they know that they are guaranteed whatever the money is? Even when I started to get appearance fees back in 2009 or whatever, I struggled with that, going to tournaments in Korea and Japan feeling like I had already won before I teed it up and had to get over that mental battle of that as well.” What impact do you think appearance fees have on players’ drives?
Bamberger: I think it’s a real thing. You think of yourself differently, when you get your money for nothin’.
Sens: McIlroy is one the most thoughtful, forthright and admirable pros out there, but it seems like he’s thinking/talking himself into knots here. Is the guaranteed money really his biggest concern with the Saudi-backed tour? Hasn’t seemed that way up to now. Is he right that some guys will be more likely to ease up mentally? I’m sure he is. But that won’t be a deciding factor in who shows up, or whether the tour succeeds or flops.
Colgan: I always appreciate Rory’s candor, but I can’t get over how strange this take is. Do the remaining professional athletes on earth not play for some modicum of guaranteed money? Does he not make tens (if not HUNDREDS) of millions in guaranteed sponsorships each year? To borrow a line from football: You play to win the game. Nothing else matters, especially not when the money winds up in your bank account.
Zak: Appearance fees have to impact the drive to succeed. It’s human nature. Does it make them any less hungry to win once they stick a peg into the ground on Thursday? Doubt it. Does it make it far more okay when they start 76-76 than in a normal event? Undoubtedly.
Bastable: Of course Rory’s right! If a team of widget-sellers were each handed $2 million to go out and sell widgets, they might perform to the best of their best abilities, but they also might not. A more effective comp structure would be to give them a modest salary and pay them commissions on their sales. Same principle holds true for world-class golfers who are paid to make birdies.
4. In an unorthodox scheduling move, the Farmers began on Wednesday and ended Saturday so it wouldn’t have to compete with the NFL’s conference championship games. Would you like to see more alternative tournament scheduling like this? Are there even better ways to schedule Tour events?
Bamberger: The Sunday finish, at this point, is tried-and-true. I don’t see the value in changing it, although a Saturday finish did work well for Ken Venturi–in 1964.
Sens: This past weekend made good sense, given the Sunday competition. But reworking the schedule any further strikes me as a solution looking for a problem. Other possible tweaks? Make them play a 36-hole final, toughing it out throwback-style.
Colgan: I’ve never understood the PGA Tour’s obsession with allowing the NFL to cannibalize its ratings in the fall and winter months. I’ll be interested to see where the ratings land from Saturday’s final round, but for now, it sure seems like a smart experiment.
Zak: If the Tour sees value in this move, then do it throughout the entirety of football season. What you cannot have is half the fall series events ending on Sunday and the other half ending on Saturday. Golf fans in particular enjoy the predictability of flipping to NBC or CBS on Sunday afternoons knowing they’ll see important golf. They don’t want to hear that they may have missed it because the schedule is all over the place. If I had my hands on the puppet strings, The first 15 legit events of the season would end on a Saturday. Then after the Super Bowl, golf takes back Sundays, with apologies to college basketball of course.
Bastable: Love the Saturday finish against the NFL machine. Makes too much sense. First-round action on Wednesday was also a treat, though a bit of mind-bender. My internal clock was a mess this week. One suggestion, though: start the fourth round earlier! The Farmers was lucky to avoid a Monday finish, and having List and Will Z. play for such high stakes in near-darkness was nutty. List couldn’t see the result of his heroic wedge shot in the playoff, and Zalatoris said he couldn’t read his putt to tie. That’s no way to decide a Tour event.
5. Bryson DeChambeau, during the second round of the Farmers, appeared to have tweaked his left wrist and lower back in play, and his status for upcoming events is unknown. (He declined to talk to the press.) This week aside, how much stress do you suppose DeChambeau go-for-broke swing puts on his body and is his style of play sustainable over the long term?
Bamberger: I would rather see Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Brooks Koepka answer that question. Or Bryson, but that would require him talking to reporters.
Sens: I’ve tweaked my back just watching Bryson swing. I don’t think you need to be an orthopedist to see that DeChambeau is asking a ton of his body. Let’s hope this is setback isn’t serious.
Colgan: At the World Long Drive Championships in September, I was surprised by how much time Bryson spent chatting with his fellow competitors about their injury histories. In that same breath, I was also surprised by the number of players — most in far worse physical shape than DeChambeau — who had never experienced an injury swinging at crazy-high speeds. He’s clearly not blind to the risks, and I suppose only time will tell, but it’s quite possible this injury wasn’t solely because of his herculean swing.
Zak: I often wondered — in the face of so much success with his ramped up body — if he would cut any corners in the physio world. I’m not saying this is proof that he did, but it’s just an extremely easy corner to cut. I’m going to side with the obvious and say that it’s probably not sustainable long-term.
Bastable: With the way the game is going, you get the sense the next wave of PGA Tour will have similar career spans to NFL tailbacks. The *really* long ball comes with a price.
6. Brooks Koepka is … blond! In a surprise reveal, the four-time major winner debuted his new ’do at the Farmers this week. What’s the wildest Tour-pro makeover in your memory bank?
Bamberger: Tiger, as a blond.
Sens: He’s not exactly a household name, but when a Playdough Barbershop-bearded Michael Thompson showed up on the telly this weekend, I thought a craft mead-maker had suddenly surged up the leaderboard.
Colgan: Remember when Rickie grew out that mustache? Ah, good times.
Zak: All I know is that it was equally ridiculous and fun to see Jordan Spieth contend at Carnoustie and answer a string of silly questions from Rick Reilly about his too-tight haircut. Thankfully, our Michael Bamberger got to the barber for anyone else could.
Bastable: Does Bryson’s total-body makeover count?