In the book “A Good Walk Spoiled,” author John Feinstein quotes a PGA Tour official who seems puzzled at the attitude of golf fans toward superstar vs underdog shoot-outs on Sunday. “I don’t know what it is,” says the official. “People want to see the big-shots win. They want the underdog out of the way by the final round.”
The phenomenon of rooting for Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth to clobber an upstart in a Sunday pairing is a modern one. In olden days, Cinderella winners like Francis Ouimet (who beat several titans of the game in a stirring U.S. Open win in 1913) and Jack Fleck (who beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff) became the stuff of legend and lore. But in 2018, an underdog with the bad manners to beat Tiger Woods by a stroke is considered a buzzkill.
PGA Tour golf is deeper in elite talent than it once was. When Bobby Jones or Jack Nicklaus were on top of their games, none of their contemporaries could touch them. Fans want to cheer for similar streaks of success today. But the depth of the Tour (and the number of excellent linksmen playing in Europe) means that 2 or 3 major-championship wins equals a great career.
Francesco Molinari won the British Open on July 22nd, despite challenges from Tiger, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and others. Molinari is a good guy and a fine player. Great for him. But to most golf fans, it was just another boring one-time wonder preventing history from from taking place on their watch.
Are the 4 Major Championships an Outdated System?
It can be argued that the 4 major championships – The Masters, the U.S. and British Opens, and the PGA Championship – are no longer the best way to identify the best pro golfers in the world.
When icons like Big Jack, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer took turns ruling over the game, the majors gave them an opportunity to intimidate the opposition with a superior skill-set. The courses were set up as unforgiving torture tracks, almost impossible for ordinary professionals using old-fashioned equipment made out of wood and pure steel.
High-tech gear and a massive talent pool have changed that in the 21st century. Clubs and golf balls are now designed to turn 500-yard Par 4s into drive-and-flick birdie holes if the player is able to nail the big stick off the tee. Irons can spin the ball out of deep rough. Sand saves are often routine, turning bunkers that were once hazards into safe havens.
Molinari is not as good as Tiger, Rory, or Phil. He may never win another major. But he peaked just in time for the 4 rounds at Carnoustie and won the Open Championship over superior linksmen. It’s a familiar story.
Over time, however, the best golfers rise to the top in stroke average and top-10 finishes. The current World #1 is Dustin Johnson, is a better and more consistent player than any of 2018’s major winners.
What if the most prestigious title in golf was decided over the long haul every season, as opposed to a quartet of 4-round sprints?
The NASCAR Formula
Part 1 of our 2-part NASCAR-vs-PGA series focuses on racing and racecar drivers. For anyone who didn’t read it and is unfamiliar with how NASCAR crowns its annual champion, here’s a quick recap.
The Daytona 500 leads off every stock-car racing season with the sport’s biggest event. Prestige and lucrative sponsorship opportunities follow the winner of each Great American Race, but while no other individual event comes close to Daytona in checkered-flag glory, it’s not the only historic title given out each year.
NASCAR holds a 10-race playoff to crown the calendar year’s champion. For a long while it was called the “Chase for the Cup,” but the competition is currently being rebranded. That’s not important. The crucial part is that NASCAR draws extremely hot fan interest to its playoff, won by top-notch drivers Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2017.
In contrast, the PGA Tour – which does not organize any of the game’s 4 major championships – holds a “FedEx Cup” playoff race with a winner crowned after the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in September. Only consistent low scorers have a shot to win the FedEx Cup, which was claimed by Justin Thomas in ’17.
But there is only lukewarm fan interest in golf’s season-capping playoff, for a number of reasons.
Fed up with the FedEx Cup
Why does (relatively) no one care about the FedEx Cup compared to the hype and fanfare surrounding each of the 4 majors?
The majors offer a different brand of golf than the PGA Tour delivers. Played on difficult, iconic layouts like Augusta National, Pebble Beach, Turnberry, and Bethpage Black, major championships force birdie-happy players to stay patient and accept bogeys after missed shots.
In theory, the majors still give the sport’s great names an opportunity to outshine a field of pretenders. A hotshot rookie might shoot 30 under par at a Disney tournament but is supposed to wilt next to Rory’s confident stride when the real golf gets going at The Masters each April. But the sheer number of quality players in each field has kept that ideal from becoming the reality in too many seasons, especially now that Tiger and Phil Mickelson are past their primes.
The majors are accompanied by such intense media coverage and social media buzz that the golf community is wrung-out by August. Even the PGA Championship has felt the effects of the fatigue. Its entrants try just as hard, but viewers don’t tend to tune in as much, prompting the Professional Golfers of America to use various strategies (including a planned move to May instead of August) to provide extra spark.
Finally, players themselves aren’t always at their peak for the Tour Championship or the other PGA Tour events that count toward FedEx’s qualification system. Highly-ranked golfers often use Tour stops to prepare and stay in shape for the big ones. Hal Sutton beat Tiger Woods with a long miracle putt at the 2000 Players’ Championship and reacted like he had won the Super Bowl. Tiger smiled and shrugged, then nearly won a Grand Slam at the majors while Sutton floundered.
Rich PGA Tour purses motivate players to chase after the money, but as I wrote in the blog last week, almost every linksman would trade a bucket full of Tour trophies – and even a FedEx Cup – for a Green Jacket or a Claret Jug.
Reimagining PGA Tour Golf with a Meaningful Season Playoff
The 4 majors are so ingrained into the fabric of golf that it’s hard to imagine any of them falling by the wayside. But there’s no question that to have a more hotly-contested “season championship,” at least some of the majors would need to go away.
I’m gonna need to get creative. Led Zeppelin-in-1971-level creative.
We know that The Masters has come under fire for Augusta National’s archaic views on race and gender, but that the club has managed to modernize somewhat in this regard. So let’s say a coup takes place and the old guard takes control, publishing a few racially-charged tweets and banning women from the grounds. A mob of protestors marches down Magnolia Lane and overwhelms a battalion of Pinkertons, even AT&T drops off the sponsor list, and the tournament is suspended for a decade.
The PGA Championship quickly moves to early April, filling the void.
Meanwhile, U.S. Open officials finally invent a course layout so difficult that no player in the field can shoot better than 20 over par for 72 holes. (This is accomplished in-part by an 800-yard Par 4 into a prevailing wind, forcing Dustin Johnson to hit something longer than a sand wedge to the green for the first time in his career. On Thursday, the Cheetah cranks a 500-yard drive, misses a 7-iron from 300 yards away and quits the USGA in disgust.)
Fans and players revolt en masse, and the U.S. Open is taken off the calendar.
Finally, let’s imagine that the British Open becomes an ordinary, boring tournament due to a freak weather pattern that leaves the seaside links devoid of wind and rain for several years in a row.
Lo and behold, the landscape is open for a long-haul PGA Tour playoff that is foremost on golfers and spectators’ minds. The Tour Championship becomes the biggest golf event in the world, and excitement builds rather than wanes in late summer. But which players will flourish?
Making Golf’s Playoff Chase Exciting
If golf’s season-standings race drew the bulk of fan interest, the PGA Tour might consider making a few changes. “FedEx” and any other corporate handle could be dropped, as the spectacle would grow in prestige and make plenty of money on its own merits.
Match play is an exciting-yet-underutilized style of pro golf, so a smart addition could be a match-play showdown bracket of the top 4 or 8 players at the conclusion of the Tour Championship.
PGA Tour courses tend to keep softer greens than the majors, and I don’t see that changing. Nobody is a gigantic fan of slicker-than-tile greens outside of the USGA and the Augusta committee. If golf’s most important title was decided on soft greens, low-ball hitters like Branden Grace would have less of a disadvantage against the towering shots of Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson.
Stroke play could still be the ticket if the field was drastically paired down so that fans could watch every shot on TV. The PGA Tour could choose to qualify the 3 top point-getters (based on wins and top-10 finishes) plus the winner of the Tour Championship for an 18-hole prime-time 4-some to decide the season title in September.
It would be hard for a methodical short hitter like Jordan Spieth to beat 3 other Tour pros in a short format with lots of birdie holes around the layout, so Jordan would hope to join the championship 4-some in a windy setting at Pebble Beach or at a difficult course like Firestone.
But eagles and birdies are crowd pleasers, and the PGA Tour is all about the bottom line. So it’s more likely that the ultimate prize would be decided at a course like Bay Hill (currently the site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational) or The Greenbrier.
Or how about in California? A mid-afternoon tee time at PGA West would begin at 6 PM in New York City.
Conclusion: How to Combine TV Ratings with Championship Luster
Televised golf is not only slow and boring at times, it’s full of frustrating bias.
Justin Rose nearly made a double-eagle during a Sunday charge at this year’s British Open, but NBC chose to show about 10 seconds of taped-delayed footage of the popular Englishman while focusing on other contenders. Most likely, the other golfers on the leaderboard had more corporate sponsorship ties to NBC-Comcast than Rose did.
Networks also love to record miracle shots by players far down the leaderboard, then pretend to cut randomly to the footage as if it’s live action. Once you’re wise to the ruse, it’s a fun way to pretend to be a clairvoyant fortune teller. If you hear “let’s go to Joe Nobody at 10 over par, he’s about to hit out of a bunker on 17,” tell your friends you can see the future and that the ball is going in. It usually does. (Don’t tell them how you know.) But such dirty tricks serve to delegitimize the broadcasts and turn viewers off over the long term.
A shot-by-shot live playoff for the ultimate trophy in prime time might just turn them on again.
Prime-time golf usually fails due to the setting’s total lack of prestige. Marrying a convenient TV time with a meaningful title could send ratings through the roof…especially if Tiger Woods continues his unlikely return as a top contender.
But Woods won’t be around forever. Neither will the current norms of golf. While some of the above may feel like a farfetched fantasy, it’s also a fact that NASCAR has found a way to give its lesser events a buzz of worldwide anticipation while the PGA Tour has not.
Memo to the stuffed shirts – want to make the PGA Tour more fun? Don’t count on 20 guys playing meaningless exhibitions in Hawaii.
Instead, take a lesson from 40 guys trapped in an oval.