Rory is not wrong, but his timing is

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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“I’m all for making it more cutthroat, more competitive. Probably won’t be very popular for saying this, but I’m all for less players and less Tour cards, and the best of the best.”

The words of Rory McIlroy after round two at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and for my money, he was right on both counts. He wasn’t popular for saying it, not among his fellow pros, and unusually for a man beloved by the press corps, not among large swathes of the media either.

But he was right about making the PGA Tour more cutthroat as well. It should be. If you want to market yourself as the most competitive league in the world, that’s what you need to be. LIV, of course, has put a major spoke in that wheel, but if – and it’s becoming an extremely big if – we ever get men’s professional golf unified once again, it needs to be the best of the best.

No more two, three or five-year exemptions for winning a tournament, no more career money exemptions, no more lifetime memberships, no 300 made cuts, no major medicals, if you want to get your name on the tee sheet for the biggest events in golf outside of the four major championships, you should have to play your way in.

Ordinarily, McIlroy speaks from a position of privilege on such matters, safe in the knowledge that he not need fear the knife in any such cutthroat measures, but that he delivered these words at a time when his play has been decidedly ordinary hasn’t helped his case. And he’s not alone. Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and Max Homa are among those stars who haven’t exactly set the PGA Tour alight in 2024.

But 156 players in a tournament is too many. It’s far too many. On the flipside, 69, like we had at Bay Hill, is too few. 100, with up to 50 going home after two rounds, is right in the Goldilocks zone. In an ideal world, 50 of the 100 would be made up of the top-50 ranked players from the previous year, with almost all of the rest of the field comprised of the players who have proven to be playing the best golf of late.

I say ‘almost all of the rest’ because limited sponsors’ exemptions should remain, as should pre-event qualifiers for some. If you’re going to ask a company to pump tens of millions of dollars into sponsoring an event only to turn around and tell them that they can’t have Tiger Woods in the field even though he wants to play, they’ll give you the middle finger and ditch their sponsorship commitments. And they’d be right. But there is only one Tiger Woods, and only a few players who are genuinely big enough stars to have their absence register anything more than a murmur, so two or three exemptions would be plenty.

Rory’s preference for a Global Tour is now well known, and even though tearing up the script and writing something new would be a drastic measure, the events on a new schedule and a new-look Tour can still retain historic value.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players Championship, The Memorial, The L.A. Open or the Genesis Invitational as it’s become can all remain, as can the Irish and Scottish Opens, the BMW PGA at Wentworth, the Australian and South African Opens, all of these could be part of a new and improved Tour, and the ‘Open’ moniker can be legitimate because of the qualifier.

Rory McIlroy is a lot of things, but somebody who’s afraid to speak his mind is not one of them. You can argue that he’s looking out for himself when he suggests that separating the wheat from the chaff is the way to go, and you could well be right, but he’s advocating for a product that is much more preferable than what we’re getting at present and for the average golf fan, that’s exactly what’s needed.

It’s just a pity that he’s been closer to chaff than wheat of late. The timing of his ‘cutthroat’ statement wasn’t great, but the right move is the right move regardless.

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