As with almost every significant tournament week on the PGA Tour the past 18 months or so, the practice days at the 2023 Players have been a balance between some focus on the week’s immediate competition and… gestures broadly at the great expanse… the entire future of professional golf. The Players is one of the few times each year that the Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, takes questions from the press and speaks publicly outside the confines of a sponsor or rights partner interview. So that’s always a moment to talk about the “big things.” This week also came on the heels of the new structure for 2024 designated events coming out at Bay Hill and a closed-door players meeting to debate and discuss that announced structure.
There are a lot of big questions in the air at TPC Sawgrass, some being hashed out both behind closed doors and out in the open. You could see how the golf tournament took a back seat for a few days, but that should change come Thursday morning. Some notes on that balance through the first few days:
With the new structure so fresh and a more inclusive players meeting set for this week, there was always going to be some dissent bubbling around TPC Sawgrass. James Hahn has been the most bombastic and deluded of the bunch, and the amount of attention he and his incoherence have received have probably been a disservice to more rational, perhaps legitimate concerns from the players outside the top tier.
After walking around on the ground and talking to players, the biggest gripes with the new designated events structure seem to focus on 1) the somewhat secretive process and general communication to members and 2) concern about it being more of a closed shop than is portrayed (there is some “model distrust”).
Kevin Streelman got at some of these communication laments in a Rex Hoggard piece this week. I found Will Gordon and Nick Hardy, who both participated in the Players first timers press gathering, to be two of several who offered some more rational concerns while clearly both stating they vehemently supported the changes and understood what needed to be done. Gordon echoed that communication issues cited by Streelman, a much more veteran member. “I think the economics are rewarding the right people and I think anyone who argues with that probably needs a reality check,” Gordon said, perhaps as a reference to some of those more outspoken critics. “But at the same time, I think the communication of—if we are considering one through 125 on how this is going to affect everyone’s livelihood, I think the communication could have been improved on how it affects 51 through 125 this coming year.”
Hardy expressed some concerns about the FedEx Cup point distribution. “The new structure motivates me because once you get in there, the truth and the fact is, I think it can be very difficult for you to get out, especially the way that the points are structured,” he said. “I loved all the changes, especially after I got the rundown in the meeting. But once I saw the FedEx Cup points distribution, I was like, ‘Wow.’ You could never find yourself out of there, especially with a player my age. I know that if I can get myself to the level of that golf, I know that in my young career and with a lot of career ahead of me, I know that there’s a lot of potential for me to stick around in there for a long time. The point is, 300 points for a fifth-place finish in a no-cut event versus a cut at a 150-player event getting a fifth-place finish of 100 points, that’s a massive difference.
“I would say the differential is too drastic,” he added, also noting he expects changes and tweaks on the points distribution front in the coming years. “I’m with the changes, don’t get me wrong. I think that having the best players at the same events and having the fan know that the best players are going to be at these events and these events mean more is great. How much they mean more I think is still to be determined. I may be wrong. The Tour may be wrong. We’re here to find out.”
Lanto Griffin was another dissenter rumored on the grounds, but he’s not said much publicly outside of Instagram comments portraying a general resentment. Griffin was a WD from the event on Wednesday morning, which was probably just an unfortunate coincidence. Hahn no-showed the meeting, which was a choice, to be sure. Both Gordon and Hardy attended and found it useful, even if they have some skepticism about certain areas.
“I thought it was informative,” Gordon said. “I think the Tour has come out with some good metrics on how it affects one through 50. I think there is a lot of uncertainty on how it is going to affect those after that. And I think with the combination of Korn Ferry Tour changing to 30 cards, PGA Tour U—because it’s equally important for the Tour to retain young talent out of school as it is at the top of the game, just from a product standpoint. I think it remains to be seen how that’s going to affect 51 through 125. Obviously, different people have different reactions. I think players in my position can thank guys like Rory and Adam Scott for not—I mean, if they had left, the PGA Tour could have gotten skewered. I’m very appreciative to those guys. I think the area of contention people have is the communication more than anything.”
After a week of the Tour and top players pushing the changes, as well as the Hahn pile-on, it was refreshing to hear some level-headed discussion on the back-and-forth from the meeting. “I think it definitely was portrayed in a way that, ‘Look, these changes are right.’” Hardy said of the meeting. “I’m not surprised. Some of their calculations into how they came to the points and the turnover rate may have been a little bit biased. But I think, like I said, I’m with these changes but I think there are certain things that might be tweaked in the future. Which is fine, because we’re all doing trial-and-error here. I’m with what’s best for the Tour, which is what we’re doing here.”
Their specific concerns balanced with the understanding that this needed to happen felt like the most appropriate path for someone in their position. The top players are what drive the business side of the Tour and make it go. And most of them are those marketing darlings selling the tickets and sponsors based on their actual play. They’re not the “elites” based on their birthright or trust funds or something, but because of actual on-course performance. In March Madness, mid-major or lower-tier conferences cannot simply shout for five or six at-large bids into the big dance. There’s an understanding of who drives the revenue and where the highest levels of competition occur. They take their seat or seats at the table, happy to be a part of the party while voicing concerns and advocating for more where they can. James Hahn would simply want the Patriot League and Big 12 to get the same amount of bids every year. As soon as someone from the rank-and-file starts shouting about injustices, they’re quickly shading into similar delusional territory. So far, much of that seems isolated to a few voices and players speaking behind the scenes.
The DP World Tour
As with that middle class of player, this moment in the game has been clarifying some hard truths for the DP World Tour. It is a secondary tour or feeder tour, has been for awhile, and we may just be using the term more frequently now. Paul McGinley, an avowed Euro Tour loyalist who has sat on the board over there, argued as much on Monday night on Golf Channel. There’s an understanding, or should be, that the strategic alliance has provided some financial security and boost to the Euro Tour, and that the best players are going to be coming over here more often to play for the biggest money. It’s been that way for awhile, and Rory McIlroy, as a Euro Tour native, alluded to this:
Q: Do you feel there’s anything about this course that undersuits or stones suit players who come from Europe?
RORY McILROY: Not anymore. I mean, all the top Europeans live here. They play on this Tour. You could maybe have made that argument 20 years ago, but I just think with the way the professional golf landscape is, we all base ourselves in this country and specifically in this area in Florida at this time of the year, so I don’t think there’s any excuses.
This won’t satisfy the Euro Tour diehards, press, or other golf fans stuck in the moment in time in the 80s and early 90s, but what is simply being said out loud more often is what has been true for awhile. It does not mean the Euro Tour is weak or worthless. It will continue to be cherished by the diehards and golf sickos. Ideally, the “strategic alliance” will cut golf in that part of the world into the “designated” level. But the term “strategic alliance” does not mean the two will or should be on anything approximating an equal footing, which some seem to confuse or hold out for. The Euro Tour has been a feeder or secondary circuit for a long time, aside from one golden generation. LIV has forced an even further consolidation of power into the PGA Tour, and both it and its transatlantic friend seemed to have survived.
The postwar era
That these hypotheticals exist is probably better for the Tour than the talk of existential crisis last summer but… there are clearly rumors of some LIV defectors investigating or backchanneling how a return to the PGA Tour might work. Rex Hoggard had a great report on what some current Tour players think of this massive, at this point, hypothetical question. Kevin Van Valkenburg asked the commissioner about some sort of re-assimilation process, and while these are just rumors, Monahan’s incredulous reply in his press conference about not understanding where any of this talk was coming from felt largely due to legal constraints or strategy. There’s enough smoke to at least consider the hypothetical. Another hypothetical to consider could be, should LIV go down, what happens if Saudi money tries to come into the game via more palatable “ecosystem-friendly” channels? Are they forever outcasts in the game, or would the money now be good if it is splashed into existing structures, as it did in F1 and women’s golf?
One thing that’s shone through is the constant tension the Tour and Monahan balance between saying they’re revenue driven, product driven, and history/legacy driven, and how rare all those overlap neatly. It’s a constant balance or pivot based on the messaging they’re trying to promote. Making no judgment about its success or usefulness, what’s a staggered-start leaderboard at the Tour Championship? It’s not a nod to history and legacy. The same goes for a designated events structure, largely driven by a need to adapt and improve its product while also rewarding its most revenue-generating stars. These motivations can get jumbled and used as expedient crutches based on what they’re trying to justify. It’s a hard balance and one illustrative of a massive tour trying to operate in an era of disruption.