When touring golf professionals separated from the PGA of America in the 1960s to form the PGA Tour—then the Tournament Players Division—I doubt they envisioned their venture would eventually include spoiled millionaires complaining about rules officials and television coverage.
The original reason that tour pros separated from club pros had to do with money and control. TV brought unprecedented revenue into the sport, and the players understandably wanted a piece. Ultimately they were able to turn a modest traveling show into a massive, “player-run” cash cow. That’s when the power in tournament golf shifted decisively to the tournament golfers themselves.
Over the past three weeks, Bryson DeChambeau has been exploring the third standard deviation of that power. In Detroit, he berated a cameraman for following him after a poor shot.
Bryson running a little hot. Caught up with him on 7 where he took a Sergio slash at the sand after splashing out of a greenside bunker, muttered an expletive after missing the par save and spent 60 seconds in a…testy discussion with a cameraman on his way to 8 tee. pic.twitter.com/ENjQt1U689
— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) July 4, 2020
At last week’s Memorial, on his way to a quintuple bogey, he was rude to two consecutive rules officials and complained loudly of getting “a garbage ruling like usual.”
DeChambeau didn’t come off any better after the incidents. “I think we need to start protecting our players out here,” he said about his confrontation with the cameraman, “compared to showing a potential vulnerability and hurting someone’s image.” After DeChambeau’s mini-tirade at Muirfield Village, his caddie jumped in front of a camera as they walked off the next tee, and he declined to talk to the media after his round.
Yes, Bryson DeChambeau is an outlier in many ways. But his sense of entitlement isn’t unusual among players. In fact, the PGA Tour actively encourages the perception that its members are in charge and can do no wrong. When players behave poorly, the Tour tends to sweep it under the rug as quickly as possible.
A few examples come to mind. Remember Jon Rahm’s hissy fit on the 11th hole at the 2019 Players Championship? Good luck finding it on the internet. After TV cameras caught Patrick Reed cheating at the Hero World Challenge last year, Slugger White said he “could not have been more of a gentleman” when informed of the penalty. And who could forget Dustin Johnson announcing he was taking a “voluntary leave of absence” in 2014, even as reports circulated that he had been popped for a third failed drug test? The Tour saves its public slaps on the wrist for lesser-known players like Robert Garrigus and Matt Every, both of whom were suspended for legally prescribed medical marijuana.
It’s not surprising that the PGA Tour would want to avoid pissing off its highest-profile members. But if the Tour continues to side with players against media outlets that just want to tell the real story, golf coverage will become even more bland than it currently is. Imagine a future filled with puff pieces about players’ charitable efforts and trips to the Columbus Zoo. Sometimes that’s what the Tour seems to want, and it’s weirdly self-destructive.
Fans are eager to learn about players’ pasts, struggles, opinions, and beefs. The NBA, for instance, has embraced conflicts and rivalries between players, and these storylines drive interest through an 82-game regular season. The authenticity of the drama invites fans to get invested, choose sides, and spread the word.
But the PGA Tour appears to have no interest in casting its players as anything but class acts, even when some of them are clearly not. Unlike the NBA, where team owners and the National Basketball Players Association are in constant negotiation, the PGA Tour has no checks and balances. Golf media has traditionally been a counterweight, but its job has become much harder in recent years. As news organizations have downsized, press centers at golf tournaments have become less diverse and vigorous. The Tour has taken advantage by filling many of the empty seats with its own staff. It’s no wonder Bryson DeChambeau acts like the media works for him.
DeChambeau seems ready to test just how far he can stretch the PGA Tour’s player-first ethic. And if he and his “brand” get their way, the Tour’s product will continue to be watered down and fans will continue to be sold short.
The players started the PGA Tour, and their power has steadily increased over the past 50 years. That approach has made them a lot of money, but fans have paid the price. The more the pros have controlled their own narrative, the less interesting that narrative has become. It’s tough to get excited about a league of gentlemen who can do no wrong. So until the PGA Tour starts valuing the fan experience as much as player satisfaction, it will be standing in the way of its own potential.