One of my favorite mantras is that constraints yield creativity. Right now, as COVID-19 forces us all to keep our distance from one other, the whole world is constrained. One of the most affected industries is professional sports. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a halt to all large gatherings, including athletic competitions. Since a vaccine is not expected for another year or more, sports organizations will have to adapt.
The current risks are such that we probably won’t see any kind of high-level athletic competition for a while. But when things settle down, golf could be one of the first major sports to resume in some form. This is a major opportunity for a sport that has struggled recently to attract new fans and a mainstream audience.
Unfortunately, the PGA Tour does not seem to be in a creative mindset. Earlier this week, the Tour sent a head-scratching memo to its members. The email detailed plans to increase playing opportunities by expanding the fields of the Charles Schwab Challenge and the Memorial Tournament from 120 to 144 and by adding as many opposite-field events as possible. A fine idea… if we weren’t dealing with a vicious pandemic that’s just starting to heat up in the United States. Those two tournaments are slated for the second half of May, so keeping them on the schedule seems downright reckless. International players will be limited by travel bans for the foreseeable future. Besides, even without fans, conventional Tour events require more than 500 people to run—probably closer to 1,000. It’s hard to believe that a gathering of that size will be viable in any area of the country less than two months from now.
What makes all of this even more puzzling is that the PGA Tour is actually in a relatively fortunate position. Golf is the only major sport that can be conducted without shared equipment or physical contact between players. The only thing it can’t be right now is 72 holes of stroke play with full fields. Such an event is socially irresponsible at this juncture. Thankfully, golf doesn’t need to be played with thousands of fans or for millions of dollars to be wildly entertaining.
If I were commissioner of the PGA Tour, I would try to take the constraints of the day as an opportunity to create a more creative product.
Once we get to the other side of the coronavirus peak, I would look to arrange a series of matches between players who live near each other. Many PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour players tend to settle in clusters in South Florida, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Scottsdale. This conveniently reduces the need for travel. Each match could feature four players and employ strict safety measures—tests of everyone before the event, pins in at all times, no rakes in bunkers, etc. A bare-bones crew of five or six local camera operators could capture the action. After the match, the footage could be edited, tracked with commentary, and presented as an hour- to hour-and-a-half-long TV program akin to Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. I don’t know about you, but I’d consider this sort of thing absolute appointment viewing.
A few specific ideas to whet your appetite:
- The Jup Crew—Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, or pretty much any member of the Joey D’s gym—could get together for a scotch game. (Sorry, Brooks, would’ve included you but I know you don’t have most of these guys’ numbers.)
- In Scottsdale, PXG troop Joel Dahmen and recently discharged Chez Reavie could square off against a pair of Cal Bears, Max Homa and Brandon Hagy, at military headqu—I mean, the Bad Little Nine.
- Don’t forget Utah! How about a PGA Tour vs. Korn Ferry showdown featuring Tony Finau and Zac Blair battling Daniel Summerhays and Patrick Fishburn.
- In #LiveUnderPar Land (Jacksonville), you could stage a game of Wolf Hammer—a favorite of the local No Laying Up gang—at TPC Sawgrass. Who doesn’t want to see the NLU boys commentate a string of sadistic, uncomfortably high-dollar bets between Cameron Smith, Jim Fuyrk, “The Big Conduct Unbecoming” Matt Every, and Former FedEx Cup No. 1 Lanto Griffin?
The possibilities are endless, really. The matches would fill a massive void in the current entertainment landscape while requiring nothing more than a gathering of about 10 people spread out across a golf hole. Also, two big benefits from the Tour’s perspective: 1) charitable contributions could be a central component, and 2) sponsors that lost their tournaments could recoup some value by advertising on a highly anticipated and popular TV product.
If my suggested formats are too far-fetched, you could always do traditional, straight-up matches with live broadcasts. These would require a few more people and cost more money, but at least they would throw a bone to the starved gambling community.
My overall point is that by getting creative in this constrained time, golf could win big, providing the world with a much-needed escape while modeling safe, responsible behavior. But the hold-up will always be the PGA Tour itself. As ESPN’s Bob Harig reminded everyone earlier today in his article about how the Tour could kill a potential Tiger-Phil “re-Match” by withholding approval, Ponte Vedra controls the players’ media rights. So either the Tour would have to spearhead this venture or good-naturedly give an outside agency license to do so.
The next several weeks are going to be trying for the entire world. Golf could be a leading light and an enjoyable distraction, but decision-makers within the game would need to balance innovation with social responsibility. If they can pull it off, who knows? Fans might not even want to go back to 72-hole stroke play after the pandemic ends.