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Monday Morning Rap: Rory Reigns Supreme, The Coverage Sucked But Congaree Didn’t

Gregory Shamus. Getty Images.

There is much to discuss. So much for an “offseason.” Without further ado…

Rory, back on top

In normal times, the Official World Golf Ranking acts as a perfunctory algorithm that operates in the background of professional golf. This year, it’s taken a beating. If you listen to LIV Golf’s messaging, the OWGR is an outdated and downright misleading representation of the current state of affairs. It’s true that Dustin Johnson shouldn’t be as low as he is, and perhaps the OWGR isn’t the definitive list it once was in this post-schism era. But it’s the still the primary tool we have for answering a very simple and yet important question: Who is the best golfer on Planet Earth?

It’s only fitting that toward the end of this most batshit year in golf, the voice of reason reigns supreme where it matters most—on the course. On Sunday, Rory McIlroy picked up his third victory of 2023 and the 23rd of his PGA Tour career to summit the mountaintop once again. For the first time since July 2020, Rory McIlroy is the world’s number one golfer. The 33-year-old Northern Irishman held off Kurt Kitayama, Jon Rahm and K.H. Lee at Congaree Golf Club in South Carolina to win the CJ Cup for the second year, only this time on a different venue. Rory’s 2021 CJ win happened in Vegas at the Summit Club, another Tom Fazio-designed course that looks and plays nothing like Congaree. 

Rory was emotional after the victory. You can hardly blame him. The man must be deeply exhausted on an emotional level. McIlroy had already emerged as the most respected voice of the post-Tiger era, but this year he became the de-facto spokesman and face of the PGA Tour. He answered questions all year about the issue ripping his sport apart, and he did so thoughtfully and insightfully. He worked diligently behind the scenes to help the tour reshape its entire structure and schedule in an instant. He helped placate the uneasiness of top players eying a LIV offer. And he did this stuff not to line his own pockets, not because he particularly enjoys discussing existential questions, but because he cares deeply about the game that has given him so much. 

All the while, he kept playing spectacular golf. McIlroy now has 14 top-10 finishes in 21 starts on the calendar year, and he’s still got the DP World Tour Championship coming up, where he’ll try to win that season-long points race in addition to the third FedEx Cup trophy he collected in August. His comments Sunday, made while fighting back tears on the 18th green Sunday, perfectly encapsulate what makes golf so deeply invigorating. 

“It means a lot,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get to this place. I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever have. I absolutely love the game of golf and I feel like when I go out there and I play with that joy, it’s definitely showed over these last 12 months…it’s a big achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now…I never feel like I’ve figured this game out, I don’t think I ever will figure it out, but everyday I wake up trying to get closer.” 

That’s the kind of relatability that makes McIlroy so endearing and so popular among fans, tour employees, volunteers and his peers. He is the anti-Tiger Woods, who in his heyday hardly celebrated victories because he was already locked in on his next event. McIlroy takes time to smell the roses; he enjoys his accomplishments like you or I would. He is not a single-minded cyborg hellbent on destroying his opponents; he is a normal guy with a golfing superpower. He feels emotions that you or I would feel if put in that position. 

Which brings me to my next point. It’s not fair. It’s the furthest thing from fair, really. But watching Rory summon the birdies when he needed them Sunday—like the three consecutive ones he made on 14, 15 and 16 to give him a large enough cushion to stomach two closing bogeys—only served to make his performance at the Open Championship sting that much more. The guy has been ice-cold in non-major final rounds recently. But in his last great chance to end the eight-plus year drought since he won one of the big four, McIlroy could not hole a putt when he needed to. He simply could not manufacture a run like the one he put together at Congaree. You get the sense he feels the burden of that drought when he plays majors, and as he’s said countless times, he’s at his best when he’s playing like the fearless floppy-haired kid who captured our hearts in 2010. He has bounced back as well as possible after that heartbreak at St. Andrews, winning the FedEx Cup and getting back to world No. 1. But you get the sense he’d trade it all for a 67 on that cool July Sunday by the Scottish sea. 

And therein lies the appeal of Rory McIlroy. It’s never a linear journey. There are champagne-popping days like these, and there are profound heartbreaks like the one at St. Andrews. He is a truly three-dimensional character, the rare sports figure who gives you an inside look into his thoughts and his feelings. Late Sunday night, I texted his caddie, Harry Diamond, to ask how this little spurt of golf compares to other runs Rory’s had in his career. 

“Yeah, close to his best,” Harry wrote. “Still room for improvement, though. Time for some majors.” 

Couldn’t have written it better myself. 

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PGA Tour: do better

 Speaking of the CJ Cup…it would’ve been nice to, you know, actually watch it. This was the best fall tournament of the PGA Tour schedule by a wide margin—you had 10 of the top 15 players in the world in the field, including McIlroy, Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Viktor Hovland, Matt Fitzpatrick and Tom Kim. You had a golf course that looks nothing like your typical PGA Tour venue, in a great way…and the only coverage was a three-hour daily window on Golf Channel. 

Before you reply with your “BUT ITS FOOTBALL SEASON” takes…of course it is. I’m not advocating putting this puppy on NBC. But what is the point of the Golf Channel, the literal Golf Channel, if it doesn’t show the best players in the world playing golf? Of course, I understand that these types of decisions aren’t so simple, that they must consider advertising and budgetary concerns. But the powers that be in professional golf have asked fans to pay, in addition to whatever cable package, to stream ESPN+ and/or Peacock if they want all the action. People like me have indeed paid for those services, so to then be told that the best event of the fall portion simply isn’t watchable until 110 minutes after the final group tees off Sunday doesn’t work. It’s simply unacceptable. 

We have to address the elephant in the room now, too: that LIV Golf broadcasts all of its rounds, commercial-free, on YouTube. That’s not a winning business strategy, and it won’t stay that way. But that’s the current state of affairs. LIV is the competition, and they are providing a far superior fan-watching-at-home experience than the PGA Tour is. If you’re willing to pay, you can watch every NFL game. The same is true for the NBA and MLB. But golf? Even if you were willing to pay—and, judging by Twitter, a ton of people were—you were SOL. Perhaps the PGA Tour could get away with shafting its core fans in the past with limited coverage, but no longer. Let’s hope this competition from LIV forces the PGA Tour to re-think its broadcast strategy, because that shit just doesn’t fly in 2022. 

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How about those bunkers, eh?

The broadcasts that did eventually hit the airwaves this week were rather enjoyable, and a lot of that is due to Congaree. The hyper-private course about 45 minutes outside Charleston was named Golf Digest’s top new course of 2021, and it actually made its PGA Tour debut last year for the one-off Palmetto Championship, which took the RBC Canadian Open’s place on the schedule after a second consecutive COVID cancellation. But that event happened in June, and having been on the ground that week, I can personally report that it was hotter than hell. Turns out the course is usually closed at that time—like Augusta National, and a bunch of other top courses in the south, Congaree closes for the summer because it’s just too damn hot to play there, and the membership’s rich enough to afford homes and memberships in more temperate summer climates. As such, the Congaree we saw last year wasn’t in peak playing conditions. 

This year, it was. What a delight it was to watch these guys navigate a course inspired by the Australian Sandbelt, a markedly different aesthetic from the treelined parkland tracks we see so often on the PGA Tour. The sandy soil provided a different look than normal—there were no “pancake” divots this week. Instead, when guys flushed one from the fairway, they were greeted with a cloud of sand. That grainy soil had it playing extremely firm and quick, and the lack of rough surrounding the greens gave players more options. They could putt it from off the surface. They could bump and run. They could nip a spinner. On courses with rough all the way around the green, your only real option is to try to slide the club under the ball and hope it comes out the way you wanted. The players loved the change: 

“We don’t get to play these kinds of courses all the time, so it’s a lot of fun and a treat,” Trey Mulling said. You could hit any shot you wanted and you don’t have the same shot over and over. This golf course brings an artistic feel to it.”

Shane Lowry concurred: “It’s not like your typical course we play in America. A lot of the fairways are wider, but around the greens…the sharpness of the bunker, how quick they are and the runoffs. A little wind would make it very tricky. 

Let’s get a little nerdy here, if you don’t mind…I particularly enjoyed the way the bunkers were cut straight into the fairways and greens, rather than having thick-rough “eyebrows” bordering every bunker. The clean lines make the bunkers pop visually, and they loom larger in the golfer’s mind as he’s over the ball. The best part, though, is how big the bunkers play—when it’s cut so short around it, the ball funnels into the bunker rather than getting caught in the rough right before it. There’s a trend around the country, particularly in the Northeast, of courses going with the eyebrow look. It photographs well, but I’m not a fan of those awkward shots where you’ve got one foot in the bunker and the ball has caught up on a clump of grass instead of going in. 

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Professional Golfers OF AMERICA Tour

Regarding venues of golf tournaments…the PGA Tour confirmed four more “elevated events” for 2024, which brings the total number to 17. They are as follows:

Sentry Tournament of Champions, Hawaii

Waste Management Phoenix Open, Arizona

Genesis Invitational, California

Arnold Palmer Invitational, Florida

Players Championship, Florida

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Texas

Masters, Georgia

RBC Heritage, South Carolina

PGA Championship, New York

Wells Fargo Championship, North Carolina

The Memorial Tournament, Ohio

U.S. Open, California

Travelers Championship, Connecticut

Open Championship, England

FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Tennessee

BMW Championship, Illinois

Tour Championship, Georgia

You might be wondering “why did this guy write all the states?” I’m hoping your next thought was ohhhhh, they’re all in America. Not all, but close—the Open is the lone elevated event taking place outside the United States, and that’s not an event put on by the PGA Tour. Put differently: the tour elevated 13 of its own events and all of them are in the U.S. The four late adds—WMPO, Wells, Heritage and Travelers—are for 2023 only, and the tour’s statement suggested other tournaments could reach that designation in 2024. They weren’t exactly working with a clean slate when choosing these, given how fast all the schedule changes happen and the inconvenient fact that all that tournaments already had dates on the schedule for 2023. 

Still, it’s a pretty sizable miss to not take this international. The PGA Tour seemed to be inching more in that direction, with official events in Bermuda, Mexico, Canada and Japan on the docket this year. There was also talk of those “International Series” fall events that would feature limited fields and no-cut formats. But we’re not sure if that’s happening anymore—the top players gave significant pushback to any marquee events in the fall, which is why McIlroy answered a question about what the fall schedule should look like with a one word answer: football—and the tour is doubling down on its established U.S. markets. That’s a strategy, for sure, and it’s probably the best one if you want your hospitality tents to be full and your tickets sold out. But as far as extending the footprint of the tour, it’s suboptimal, and this gives LIV an easy narrative edge: they can, and they already have been, market themselves as the “world tour.” The balance of professional golf has swung so far in the United States’ direction; three of the four majors are here, most every best player lives and plays here. LIV has now provided a more worldly option, at least in their own estimation, and that has serious appeal to some people who aren’t as enthralled with the red, white and blue as you or I. You gotta think the PGA Tour will go international in 2024. Maybe the RBC Canadian Open, or the Zozo in Japan, or a new event entirely. Or maybe they won’t. 

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No clubs, no problem

I’m gonna talk a bit about my personal golf life in here, because this is my space and I’ll do what I want with it. If you don’t care, simply move on. 

Anyway, if you follow me on Twitter you know I had a bit of an equipment mishap this weekend. We had our season-ending member-member tournament at the club, and I played Thursday afternoon to get a look at the course before the two-day event started on Friday. After the round, I put my bag down next to the bag room and told the boys that my clubs would be staying overnight, for I had the member-member the next morning. 

I arrived the following morning buzzing with anticipation and adrenaline…only to see my partner’s clubs on our cart, but not ours. Hmmm. Checked the bag room multiple times. No dice. Went to the range to see if someone else had grabbed it by mistake. Nope. I even had my fiancee check my car to make sure my dumbass didn’t put them in there. I’ve done that before, but not this time. 

Turns out there was an outing on the course on Thursday, when I played the practice round, and the organizers bussed everyone to and from the golf course. The bus driver must have simply collected all the golf bags he saw and put them in the bus. He was likely instructed to do so. A simple misunderstanding and no one’s fault, per se, but I was in a rough spot because my clubs were on Long Island and I was teeing off in Westchester County in five minutes. 

Luckily, an assistant pro had a bag setup not dissimilar from mine, and he kindly let me borrow his set. I played really solid those first nine holes, and we won our match. Even more luckily, the bas was located and sent to the course an uber, it arrived in time for the second of our five nine-hole matches. We wound up going 3-1-1, which was good for second in our group—also known as first loser, because only the top finishers advanced to the shootout. My partner and I then stuck around for a boozy nine holes to wrap up the season. The course was perfect, it was 65 and sunny, and we knew there might not be another day like this until April. And now I’m getting depressed. I know all you Northeasterners can relate. 

Elsewhere

—Lydia Ko dominated at the LPGA event in Thailand, firing a seven-under final round for a four-shot victory. Given the rollercoaster nature of Ko’s career, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: that she’s 25 years old years old with 18 career victories on the LPGA Tour, including two majors. She’s been working with Sean Foley for a while now and seems to be in a great place both physically and mentally after a rough few years there. Lovely to see. 

—Yannick Paul holed a 15-foot putt to win the DP World Tour event and rise to the mid 20s of that tour’s season-long points race. That might not seem super important, but it is, because this is the first year that the top 10 finishers on the DP World Tour that aren’t already exempt on the PGA Tour will get their PGA Tour cards. The very top of the points race is flooded with the top players in the world: guys like Rory, Rahm, Fitzpatrick, Terrell Hatton. But Paul’s win takes him up to 12th in the not-already-PGA-Tour-player rankings. He’s got a few events left to try to sneak his way into the top 10 and earn playing privileges on the PGA Tour. 

—Majed Al Sorour, part of the Saudi royal family’s inner circle and the CEO of Golf Saudi, had to issue an “oopsie” statement after the New Yorker published some pretty eye-opening remarks. In that article, Al Sorour said he’d be happy if the majors continued to “side” with the PGA Tour, because he would simply create his own majors for his players. That line was harped on by many in the media, including myself, and I do genuinely the backlash prompted him to say he didn’t mean it, the guy misrepresented my words, blah blah blah. (Side note here for public figures: stop trying to discredit the journalist in your apologies. Phil did it, and now Majed. Instead of just owning up to their mistake, they cast doubt on the writer’s integrity and it’s lame as hell).

Anyways, I spoke truth to power to a Saudi government official. That’s never ended poorly for a journalist. 

—Shane Lowry broke his putter at the CJ Cup. Even funnier: he headed to the PGA Tour Superstore to pick up a replacement. Pros—they’re just like us!

—This was a relatively quiet week on the LIV vs. PGA Tour standards, though the PGA Tour did launch another countersuit aimed against Saudi higher-ups—including Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chair of the Public Investment Fund—alleging they improperly meddled with PGA Tour players. 

—This was a massive week for those toiling on the fringes of professional golf. The second stage of Korn Ferry Q School is where dreams go to die: miss the cut for final stage and you’re looking at another year of mini tours and Mondays. Make final stage, and you’ve at least got some sort of Korn Ferry status for the following year. Ryan French over at the Fire Pit Collective was all over second-stage storylines, as he always is, but we’ll highlight one guy in particular: Willie Mack, who’s received a few invites into PGA Tour events. He’s one of the very few black American professional golfers, and he squeaked by on the number at his second-stage site to get to the promised land. Now, if he can just get hot for one more week…

—I tweeted about ranch flavored Corn Nuts earlier this week because they’re fucking incredible. Then the official Corn Nut twitter account responded with some wild story about slicing a ball into his sister. A friend from years ago then reached out to tell me he’d started a new corn-based snack food and sent a care package to my house. What a strange, strange world we live in. But still, ranch Corn Nuts forever. 

Until next week,

Dan