Monday Morning Rap: PGA Tour's Time to Shine, Phil Mickelson's Back and An Inside Look Into The Coaches' World
This is the PGA Tour's time to shine
Let's get philosophical for a minute—when, exactly, does the professional golf year start? Is it the Fortinet Championship, the first event of the PGA Tour schedule? Is it the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the first event of the calendar year? Is it Torrey Pines, when the boys return back to the continental 48?
I'd argue this week's Waste Management Phoenix Open marks the true start of the PGA Tour's next chapter. That's not meant as a dig at any of those other events; it's merely an acknowledgement of the new dynamic of the professional game. This isn't the first designated event—that was the Sentry, but that tournament feels more like an ease-back-into-it, first-day-of-school, chill-in-paradise sesh. There were hardly any fans on site and, with only 30-odd players in the field, vibes weren't exactly electric.
That won't be the case this week. The WMPO has emerged as one of—the?—premier non-major, non-Players events of the year. And it did so even before it received its much-deserved designated status. This tournament has an identity, perhaps more so than any other on the schedule. It's a party in the truest sense, the one week a year where golf fans feel liberated to act like football or NASCAR or soccer fans. Beers will fly. So will boos. A shirt or two might even come off. If the atmosphere at Augusta's 12th hole brings a Cathedral to mind, the stadium-style 16th at TPC Scottsdale veers more toward a music festival. The whole week feels big—and that was before this event drew virtually all the top players, as it will this year. That, plus the Super Bowl in town, and Netflix's "Full Swing" about to debut, has all of golf's power brokers congregated here in the desert.
"Guys rank this tournament really high," Joel Dahmen told me. "Performing under those conditions all week is definitely a level up."
It should be one hell of a week. For the PGA Tour, it has to be one hell of a week. The last eight months in golf have seen LIV Golf on the front foot, plucking off players with huge-money guarantees, rolling out its new format and generally disrupting an ecosystem that had been virtually unchanged for decades. This, then, is the PGA Tour's time to be on the front foot and show off its new and improved product. This is the precise type of tournament that has to resonate with fans, and it should serve as a blueprint designated events moving forward: a golf-crazed market and a tournament with an identity.
Of course, this simply has to remain a designated event moving forward. On that note, it'll be interesting to see which events keep their designated status moving forward and, on the flip side, if there will be any movement on that front. If the goal were simply to increase fan interest in the PGA Tour's product, they'd be best served to keep designated events as designated events—we need the casual fan to be able to hear an event's name and know it's a "big one." That won't happen, and the tournaments won't continue to build identities like the WMPO has, if they're not consistently attracting the top players.
Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. Corporate sponsors largely foot the purse bill for tournaments, and tour brass have to keep certain companies happy. AT&T, to pick one, has been a major supporter of the PGA Tour for years, and they don't have a designated event this year. It's a tricky balance—you want to build a consistent, digestible product to grow the fanbase, but you also have to keep the financial overlords happy. This year's schedule has always been a stop-gap, a band-aid of sorts to get the tour to 2024. As such, there could well be significant changes to the designated-event slate next year—perhaps new cities, and hopefully an elevated event outside the United States. Here's hoping whatever events get that label, keep it.
The Pro-Am certainly isn't what it used to be
The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am came and went with a whimper this week. It's disappointing, because Pebble Beach is among the ultimate cathedrals in our sport—there's truly no better walk on the planet. The natural beauty of the setting, combined with its extensive history of U.S. Opens and Crosby Clambakes makes it truly iconic, and how cool would it be for all the best players to compete there on a yearly basis? Jordan Spieth, an AT&T ambassador, has certainly thought about the possibility.
"I would fight for an opportunity for this to be an elevated event in future years," Spieth said Wednesday. "I'm not sure if the format would have to change or what would have to happen—but, not just because I play this event, but I really think the opportunity to get the top 50, 60, 70 players in the world playing Pebble Beach and that being a PGA Tour event would be as successful as when the U.S. Open's held here. I think that trying to go to the world's best courses, when you have the opportunity, would be advantageous for the PGA Tour. So I will fight for it."
It's an uphill battle for a tournament that's seen its relative importance diminish in recent years. The reasons are multiple. First, it comes right before Phoenix and Riviera, which are two of the premier non-major events. The weather in Pebble Beach, as you saw this week, can be downright frigid in February. And while playing with celebrities and titans of business used to be one of the event's main draws—players form relationships with wealthy people that sometimes turn into sponsorships—these guys make so much cash that scoring another endorsement isn't quite as important as it used to be. It's one of the slowest tournaments of the year because of the amateurs, and having to play three different courses adds a logistical nuisance that plenty of guys just don't want to deal with. And since 2018, the Saudi International has taken place the same week, and their hefty appearance fees have lured plenty of guys over even before LIV came around.
We pause now to acknowledge just how first-world these problems are; those three courses (Pebble, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula's Shore Course) are bucket-list stuff for golfers everywhere. But the top players in the world exist in different universe from our own.
What resulted was a rather weak field assembled on the Peninsula this week—there were just seven top-50 players, and the lone top-10 guy, Matt Fitzpatrick, missed the cut. The Saudi International had a much, much stronger field. Despite not officially being a LIV Golf event—it's an Asian Tour event—it's basically a LIV event, as it's funded by the same people bankrolling LIV, and a good number of LIV guys were contractually obligated to play in the event. Abraham Ancer won that one wire-to-wire, with two of the three PGA Tour players in the field finishing second (Cameron Young) and third (Lucas Herbert).
The Saudi International wasn't on TV at all, there were hardly any fans on-site, and Golf Channel essentially ignored its existence. The players who made the trip won't care much, however, because those appearance fee checks will still cash.
I tend to get caught up in the day-to-day minutae of the LIV-PGA Tour drama, but this tweet from No Laying Up's D.J. Piehowski helped me zoom out and realize how this week is indicative of the ever-shifting landscape.
Dystopian is one way to put it…either way, it's a stark reminder of the power of the Almighty Dollar.
A peak into the coaches' world
We're going to venture into the world of the professional golf coach, which is a pretty good gig at the minute. While their bosses aren't allowed to play both the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, coaches are free to roam between the two ecosystems. Boyd Summerhays has Tony Finau on the PGA Tour, and he has Talor Gooch on LIV Golf. Mark Blackburn has Max Homa on the PGA Tour, and he has Hudson Swafford on LIV Golf. Mike Walker has Matt Fitzpatrick on the PGA Tour, and he has Henrik Stenson on LIV Golf.
Yes, the explosion in purses (which, of course, LIV had a major factor in) means business is booming for these top-level coaches. They often have to turn very good players away because they're simply too busy; in addition to traveling to tour events, many of these coaches enjoy working with amateurs at their home club and, ostensibly, spending time with their families.
Phil Kenyon's one of the best putting coaches in the world, so it's no surprise that he has a full roster of players using his services. Mark Blackburn thought Phil could be a huge help to his student, Max Homa, so he asked his fellow Brit for a favor. Make some time for Max, he told Phil. I promise you this guy is the real deal. Phil listened, and Homa's playing the best golf of his life.
The story comes full circle this week with Justin Rose's victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Rose has been struggling for years since he reached world No. 1 in 2018; he's broken up with and reunited with longtime Sean Foley a few times, but after a frustrating week at the RSM Classic he sought out Mark Blackburn's guidance. Problem is, Blackburn already had a dozen players in his stable. But because Kenyon had done him a solid in seeing Max, Blackburn returned the favor and offered to help Rose. That obviously paid off this week, with Rose winning his first event in more than four years.
A bunch of Phil news all the sudden
Phil Mickelson was back being Phil Mickelson this week. He fired up the Twitter machine to throw haymakers—at PGA Tour players (jokingly), at some poor bald guy and even at Mr. Tiger Woods.
He also did his first extensive interview in quite a while with Sports Illustrated's Bob Harig. He didn't say all that much. The highlights: he believes LIV Golf will win its legal case against the DPWT Tour and that LIV players will be able to play on that circuit; he believes he can win one or even two more majors; and, perhaps most interestingly, he said players have reached out to thank him for all the changes LIV has brought to professional golf.
"I’ve had a number of guys thank me profusely. I’ve got the same close relationships with the players I’ve been playing with around here as I’ve had in the past. The relationships that are going to be affected were not really close and were more acquaintances. Their views are going to be altered by public perception or whatnot. The friends are still close. And I’ve been appreciative of the number of players who thanked me for however big or small it may have been to get some of these changes that occurred [on the PGA Tour]. It’s a decent amount of guys; I don’t want to call out guys and who they are. But it’s been a good learning experience."
Phil then turned up to his press conference at the Saudi International looking like a completely different person than just three months ago—he said he was back to his college weight and, after seeing this before-and-after, I definitely don't doubt him.
As for his golf, Lefty was making his first start in nearly four months. He shot 70 and 71 to miss the cut by a shot.
—Bryson DeChambeau is currently without a club sponsor. He showed up to the Saudi International with a TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, so I texted a Cobra rep to ask what the deal is.
"Bryson is not currently on staff with (Cobra Puma Golf) as his contract was up in 2022," he wrote. "We are in discussions about 2023 and the future."
The club manufacturers have stayed really quiet on the whole LIV issue. They don't seem to be promoting LIV Golfers much at all, and industry sources say the mandate from above has been to wait and see how this thing plays out. They could potentially sue players for breach-of-contract if they didn't satisfy their minimum-event requirement, but the optics of that obviously won't be great. On the flip side, should LIV take off this year and moving forward, they'll want to benefit by being associated with LIV Golfers. Should be interesting to follow.
—We're not calling Aaron Rodgers a sandbagger, but we're thinking about it. He and his partner, Ben Silverman, won the pro-am at Pebble despite Ben's missing the cut by three shots. How is that possible, you might ask? Because Rodgers was playing off a 10 handicap, which is weird because his GHIN handicap in Wisconsin is a 3.0. He has some serious explaining to do. Keith Mitchell, who played with Josh Allen this week, isn't buying the whole 10-handicap thing.
—Our "Fore The Cut" bet hit again, this time at +825. We've now won this bet three of the last four weeks with payouts of +425, +800 and +825. Now that's a golf podcast for you.
—A new PGA Tour rule raised some eyebrows: they announced that any player who plays in an unsanctioned event—a tournament where they wouldn't issue conflicting-event releases (LIV event), any conflicting tournament in North America, or any tournament they deem harmful to the Tour and its members. Starting with the beginning of the 2022-23 season, any player who competes in one will be suspended for a full year. This impacts PGA Tour players, of course, but also nonmembers—Turk Petit, for example, is suspended for a year for participating in LIV's Chicago event, which took place after the start of the 2022-23 season
The PGA Tour clearly feels its on solid legal footing with these kinds of rules, and they're making the situation clear: if you want to be involved in our ecosystem—the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, Korn Ferry Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamerica and PGA Tour Canada—then you have to stay in our ecosystem. The difference here is that players are free to leave that ecosystem as they please, as so many have done. The PGA Tour cannot prevent a player from walking, as team sports teams cans, because the players are not signed to binding contracts. They're just saying that if you leave, you cannot immediately return.
—LIV Golf is expected to begin rolling out its player list soon. As you probably heard by now, Sebastian Munoz is the latest guy expected to make the jump, joining Mito Pereira, who played in the Saudi International. If Mito's the biggest name they were able to sign, that'd be a significant disappointment for LIV.
—A caddie for an amateur collapsed during the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, leading to a scary scene on the 11th fairway. Play was stopped as an ambulance drove onto the course, and first responders performed CPR. The man who collapsed is doing better, by all accounts.
—St. Andrews built a little patio thing that leads up to the Swilcan Bridge, and people are big mad.
The official justification of the add-on was to save the turf on either side of the bridge, which gets trampled due to heavy foot traffic. Surely, though, there had to be better ways to accomplish that goal. And even if there isn't, nearly everyone would rather have a little bit of unsteady turf on either side of the bridge than whatever the hell that is.
Update: In a statement, St. Andrews announced that it will deconstruct that patio situation and return to artificial turf. The power of social media!
—I had a chance to watch "Full Swing," Netflix's upcoming behind-the-scenes documentary about professional golf, over the weekend. I'm biased, but I genuinely believe the show will be a hit. It leans all the way into the emotional and human-interest side, and you're going to see these guys be more honest and show more vulnerability than you ever have. It drops Feb. 15, and I can't wait for you all to see it.
Until next week,