Four weeks into 2021, it’s déjà vu on the PGA Tour. We’ve had another eye-popping winning score at Kapalua, another triumph for a short-knocker at Waialae, another bludgeoning of the once-formidable PGA West Stadium Course, and another Patrick Reed “incident.” With the free space, we’ve completed modern PGA Tour bingo in short order.
There is, however, one unusual trend in the 2021: a few players—even ones not named Brooks Koepka—are veering ever so slightly from PGA Tour talking points. Consider these quotes from the first month of tour action:
Adam Scott: “I think somewhat that there’s not space for 50 stroke-play events in the calendar year. I mean, they can’t all be serious, 72-hole events. Some of this is, of course, is about competition, but it’s also about entertainment, when there’s so much of it, and the Tour’s got to try and find that balance.”
Reporter: “You can win anywhere, can’t you?”
Kevin Kisner: “Probably not. I’m not going to win at Bethpage Black or Torrey Pines.”
Reporter: “Why show up?”
Kisner: “They give away a lot of money for 20th.”
Reporter: “Just to be clear, you wouldn’t have picked the ball up [like Patrick Reed]?”
Xander Schauffele: “No. I would wait for an official. You can put a tee in the ground and check your ball. I mean, he did everything by the book according to the official and everyone stood by there. Obviously the talk amongst [other tour players] isn’t great, I guess, but he’s protected by the Tour and that’s all that matters.”
The PGA Tour, a nonprofit organization that just built a $65-million headquarters, avoids two things at all costs: confrontation and controversy. This is why they scrub video evidence from social media when players act out on the golf course. It’s why they rarely publicize consequences for behavior ranging from cheating to uttering a homophobic slur into a hot mic. It’s why they pound the drum of charitable giving (which—don’t get us wrong—is great!) to justify the existence of certain very sleepy events.
But here’s the thing: golf fans aren’t stupid.
We know PGA Tour players don’t always get along and aren’t always models of gentlemanliness. We know the Barbasol Championship has barely any business being played. Those aren’t secrets to anyone who is paying attention. So when tour officials announce that players have taken mysterious “leaves of absence,” when they refer to an obviously shady drop by Patrick Reed at the Farmers Insurance Open as “perfect,” they’re insulting our intelligence. Like we can’t see through even the most feeble of PR smoke screens.
We can handle the truth.
Last weekend, Xander Schauffele indicated that other players were unhappy about the Reed situation, yet only one other player really spoke out. Lanto Griffin managed a somewhat vague critique: “It’s sad, kind of pisses us off, but it’s the way it is. Hopefully something changes.”
Maybe other players simply didn’t want to say what they were thinking. But even if they did, they would have had to worry about violating the PGA Tour’s code of conduct. The player handbook reads, “It is an obligation of membership to refrain from making comments that unreasonably attack or disparage others, including but not limited to tournaments, sponsors, fellow members/players and/or PGA TOUR. Speech that could be reasonably viewed as hateful, abusive, obscene and/or divisive is expressly prohibited.”
This rule has come into play recently, in fact. After Patrick Reed Reed blatantly improved his lie in a waste area at the 2019 Hero World Challenge, Australian Cameron Smith called him out, even using the word “cheating.” It wasn’t long before he got a call from the PGA Tour. According to Golf Digest, “an official from the PGA Tour spoke to Smith about the remarks, essentially issuing a warning that he would be fined in the future if he made similar statements.” Of course, Smith was reasonable in his assessment of Reed’s actions, but that didn’t matter. He was still threatened with a fine.
The PGA Tour is uniquely sensitive about these kinds of things. Most other professional sports leagues embrace conflict. They’re fine with reporters telling stories fueled by rivalries, even animosity, between teams and players. Not the PGA Tour. It’s all sunshine, rainbows, and perfect gentlemen—and if you’re a media member who consistently questions that narrative, you might find it a lot harder to be called on at press conferences.
The Patrick Reed affair at Torrey Pines is just the latest example of these dynamics. He was defended by rules officials, barely criticized in public by other players, and at his post-victory press conference, the media mostly kept the kid gloves on. It’s not that players don’t want to give their honest opinions or that reporters don’t want to ask pointed questions; it’s that they know there will be repercussions if they do. The Tour’s objective is as little drama as possible and its method is control of communications.
A handful of players appear to be testing the PGA Tour’s tolerance for free speech this year. What they’ve said hasn’t been hateful, abusive, or obscene; they haven’t attacked the character or integrity of their competitors. (That type of stuff is saved for burner accounts!) They’re just giving honest opinions. Fans deserve more of that. We want to hear players speak their minds. We’re hungry for some healthy drama, some intrigue, some reason to tune in week after week. But we’re largely kept in the dark.
The likes of Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, and Xander Schauffele may want to shed some light on today’s game, but they’re constrained by the PGA Tour’s PR strategy. It’s time for them to be freed up.