The Language of Golf – When tournaments became a product

Ivan Morris

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at the 2023 Genesis Invitational (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Ivan Morris

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During The Players Championship at Sawgrass, the PGA Tour’s Chief Operating Officer, Jay Monahan, held a rare press conference. One of the quotes that made its way into the mainstream caught my attention:

“We’ve looked at all possible competitive models, and it was evident and perhaps obvious that whatever we do differently, we must showcase our top performers competing against one another more often. We know that designated events can resonate both with core and casual fans, evidenced by the metrics of the WM Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational last month. But designated events can’t stand on their own. You need strong, compelling full-field events to provide consistency and keep the PGA Tour top of mind week-in and week-out with storylines and breakout stars.”

I understand that Rory McIlroy, who is a Director of the Players Advisory Committee to Mr. Monahan, was ‘imprisoned’ in a meeting for 7-hours during the Arnold Palmer Tournament at Bay Hill. No wonder he wasn’t at his best – getting off to a bad start and finishing weakly. Listening to Mr. Monahan’s gobbledegook would stunt anybody’s focus and concentration.

Henry Longhurst wrote that golf is the Esperanto of sport. All over the world golfers talk the same language and endure the same frustrations, discover the same infallible secrets, and share the same illusory joys. Not anymore in more exclusive committee rooms because I am sure similar ‘show off’ language is used at USGA and R&A HQs and will be to the fore at Augusta National Golf Club during The Masters Tournament when all the game’s major controlling bodies get together for various summits.

Increasingly, these get togethers view golf as a product. Marketing “products” it seems requires an elevated, opaque and mysterious vocabulary that ordinary people, including golfers, have trouble understanding. A tournament is no longer a tournament – it’s a product for on-site spectators and the television viewers seeking “entertainment.”

On the PGA Tour there is an incentive scheme called the Player Impact Program (PIP) won by Tiger Woods on each of the two years of its existence, while hardly playing any golf at all. The PIP is now going to be reduced having, it is thought achieved its goal of ‘seeing off’ LIV Golf.

A pool of $40 million in 2021, went to $100 million in 2022 and was shared amongst the PGA Tour’s biggest stars without any of them hitting a ball to earn it. It’s meritocracy Monahan-style. PIP is $50 million this year. Woods won the $8-million first prize in 2021 and $15 million last year. Next year, 2024, it may disappear as it was nothing short of bare-faced bribery to keep Tiger and his pals from jumping ship to join the lucrative, upstart, new pro tour, LIV Golf, an unruly disruptor that had barged its way into the committee room.

LIV, whether Jay Monahan accepts it or not, is dominating the conversation at THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP and, will be doing so even more at THE MASTERS, because it is quite conceivable that a LIV player could contend or even win the green jacket.

Player interviews abound focussing on changes to the PGA Tour schedule and formats that everyone knows were prompted, provoked, and inspired (take your pick) by the advent of LIV Golf. The Media Conference with Commissioner Monahan (as behoves a 7-hour meeting with the players prior) went on forever and takes up umpteen pages in the transcript. The amazing thing is that Monahan did not once mention the word “LIV,” notwithstanding how frequently it came up in questions from the invited attendees.

The PGA Tour lexicon today includes phrases such as “designated” and “elevated” events. “No cut” has invaded the vocabulary as a regular entry, not that it hasn’t been part of the language before. It’s everywhere now that the Tour will hold eight limited-field, designated events for mega-millions, where every player who starts will finish unless he breaks a leg.

Odd things are often said after suffering through a disappointing round that might have won if somebody else had not finished one stroke better. For Rory to say: “The lead’s changing hands with guys making bogeys, not really birdies. So don’t know how people find that entertainment value,” is one of those occasions. Proves he is human, I suppose, because it is churlish and ungracious.

Rory misses the point that (educated) golf fans like when the best players suffer. Pars and birdies are boring when everyone is making them. Golf on the edge, played along a tightrope. Fall off, get back on, and try again. As Kurt Kitayama did after making a triple bogey 7 on the 9th during the last round at Bay Hill. Lose the lead; win it back again. Bravo!

At Bay Hill, it seems like Rory fell on his head once too often in the final round. After shooting 7 birdies and 5 bogies I am not surprised he needed a whinge to make himself feel better. A mixture of the good, bad, and glorious is what other golfers want to see.

If the PGAT claims to be entertainment, Bay Hill was top class. Entertainment is subjective. Prestige and significance are perceptions that pay no bills. It’s the cash that is of most interest to every pro golfer who ever played for their supper. It’s the boatloads of LIV cash that most annoys those who are not LIV players. All pro tournaments (apart from the four majors) are entertainment and, there is no denying that every tournament on the PGA Tour in 2023 has been more entertaining to watch than the one LIV ‘product’ held so far.

Lately, pro golf has become much more than just the golf that is played on the golf course. If you ask me, it is all a little too much. The Business School language of Jay Monahan does not make for ‘easy-communication’ between the top and lower tiers. In fact, it creates division. The opinions and needs of ordinary golfers, club professionals, greenskeepers, and people earning their livings in all segments of the golf industry are being side-lined and not given anything like as much priority as those that earn their living from playing in major tournaments.

Touring pros have (in my opinion) far too big an influence and say in the how ‘the good of the game’ is perceived, articulated, and best realised. The evidence appears to say that Rory has taken too much upon his shoulders and is showing early signs that he will be relying on the fates more than his form when he gets to Augusta. His best showing in 2023 (so far) was on the DPW Tour – away from the stresses and strains of PGA Tour business. Committee work should be strictly off-limits when you are still a player.

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