In my eyes, the first actual elevated event on the new PGA TOUR schedule has just been and gone and bar one young lass chugging two beers like Stone Cold Steve Austin to chants of USA, USA in the stands, and a mullet-topped streaker pole-dancing the pin on 16 before doing his best Catch Me If You Can impression, things didn’t feel all that different in Phoenix.
Sure, the Sentry Tournament of Champions was technically the ALL CAPS TOUR’s first designated event but as the name suggests, that tournament’s going to have a pretty special field each year anyway, so Phoenix was the first real taste of what America’s tour has in store for us in 2023.
Call it foreboding but Rory McIlroy’s pre-tournament comments didn’t exactly set the week ablaze. “I’m looking forward to it this week in some ways, but it’s going to be an experience,” was McIlroy’s not-so ringing endorsement of a 72-hole tournament firmly focussed on one – the stadium hole par-3 16th.
In McIlroy’s defence, playing golf in front of booze-fuelled fans isn’t everyone’s cup of Michelob Ultra – trying to concentrate as 20,000 animals bay for an ace or blood on the Colosseum-like 16th is worse still – but as the tour’s de-facto leader, you would’ve hoped for more enthusiasm from McIlroy given it’s his first elevated start of the new year after skipping Hawaii. A tied-32nd result meant he ended the week as he started it – flat.
Unlike McIlroy, however, I was buzzing ahead of last week’s tournament. It’s the one event a year that brings one of my favourite films, Happy Gilmore to life; people leaving their shanties to share a beer and bask in the glory of golf’s greatest technicians.
A video of Shane Lowry letting one fly on 16 during the practice round as the Dropkick Murphy’s ‘Shipping up to Boston’ blared out certainly wet my whistle. We’re talking golf, but louder, though not too loud with LIV CEO Greg Norman, of all people, complaining; “The Waste Management Open is way too loud for a professional golf tournament”.
It just so happens that anything Greg dislikes, I seem to have the opposing view. And with a twenty million dollar purse bringing the top players together, the stage was set for one of the all-time great PGA Tour events to unfold. And then, well, golf happened. Sunday’s leaderboard served as a reminder that for all the marketing, planning and propaganda the PGA Tour can conjure, there’s one thing they can’t legislate for on anyway given week, and that’s how players play.
Billed as Rahm versus Rory in a battle for world domination, a somewhat forgotten behemoth of golf in Scottie Scheffler served it up to his rivals, and through no fault of his own brilliance, sucked the excitement from the stands while relegating the supposed elevated event to regular tournament status.
No disrespect to the superb Nick Taylor but had it been Rahm or Rory in the wings, the back nine on Sunday would’ve been infinitely more interesting. As it happened, Scheffler never relinquished his grip on the title, and the finish clashed with the Superbowl; all those still capable of standing abandoning their perch on 16 in favour of America’s game by the time Scheffler and co rolled round.
Of course, this is golf we’re talking about, not WWE – that aforementioned Stone Cold impression discounted – meaning results on the fairways aren’t predetermined. Sure, form can act as a guide, but the talent pool is so deep that a different name can be thrown up on any given Sunday, and some carry more weight than others.
Such unpredictability also happens to be one of the most attractive aspects of our game, and while titans mightn’t always collide at the crunch as sponsors would undoubtedly wish, the underdog plays a pivotal role in the meritocracy of the tour, and any plans to shift the designated event model to limited 70-player fields next year should be nipped in the bud immediately.
That said, by playing the numbers game and bringing the best players together more often, the elevated event series should yield more grandstand finishes than not. This week’s Genesis represents another chance for the formula to click and there’s also the small matter of Tiger Woods teeing up for his first proper PGA Tour event in an age.
Now I don’t expect him to feature on Sunday, bar handing out the trophy as tournament host, but there’ll be a ton of players battling harder than ever just to receive it from a man who elevates a tournament with his presence alone, regardless of whether he’s functioning on one leg or two.