Senior Tour’s Problem One Phil Is Unlikely To Address

This ought to have been an outstanding week for Miller Brady. The PGA Tour Champions, of which Brady is president, began its season in Hawaii with more fanfare than usual thanks to the debut of Hall of Famer Ernie Els. Nor is Els the only major winner who will slather on the Bengay and saddle up for the senior circuit in 2020. Jim Furyk and Mike Weir both turn 50 on May 12, with Rich Beem following in August.

Yet for all the promise this year holds for Brady, it presents a problem too: Phil Mickelson.

Mickelson turns 50 on June 16. That’s Tuesday of U.S. Open week at Winged Foot, a tournament he may need — and would almost certainly receive — an exemption into. The first old guys event for which he’s eligible is the U.S. Senior Open, held one week later at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island. Since Mickelson remains focused on completing the career grand slam at the U.S. Open, what are the chances he’s going to pitch up at the geriatric version of the event?

Slim and none, and slim just left town, as Curtis Strange used to say.

“I haven’t thought too much about it and I won’t until I see how the first six months of this year go,” Mickelson said earlier this week while hosting The American Express stop on the PGA Tour. “It’s nice to have the option to move over to another Tour, but it’s also nice to have the challenge of competing out here.”

“When I stop hitting bombs I’ll play the Champions Tour, but I’m hitting some crazy bombs right now,” he added with an impish grin. “No, I still have speed. There’s no reason I couldn’t play out here. I hit the ball every bit as far.”

Mickelson’s comments can’t have been comforting for Brady, who may find himself running a 50s-and-over Tour that the world’s best 50-year-old considers beneath his competitive level. When I asked his reaction to Mickelson’s breezy dismissal of senior golf, Brady remained typically upbeat.

“Phil has been one of the biggest stars in all of sports for nearly three decades, and it has been amazing to see how competitive he’s remained in his late 40s. When he’s ready to compete on the PGA Tour Champions, I think he will enjoy the competition and camaraderie while playing alongside the guys he grew up with,” he replied. “If that’s this year, next year or further down the line, his presence will create a tremendous level of excitement for our fans.”

Except Mickelson doesn’t seem too excited at the prospect of playing alongside guys he grew up with. He’d rather be schooling the kids.

He wants to trash talk with guys like Justin Thomas, not compare orthopedic inserts with Colin Montgomerie. And his likely absence can’t help but weaken the PGA Tour Champions. Sure, Els might play well consistently and elevate the circuit’s profile, but senior events are often glorified pitch and putt contests, and Ernie’s putter left him years ago. Brady is staring at another year of trying to build a compelling product around the Scott McCarrons of the world.

On the face of it, the PGA Tour Champions is robust. There are 27 stops on the ‘20 schedule with a total prize fund nearing $60 million. Viewership on Golf Channel averages 133,000, equal to LPGA events and better than the Korn Ferry Tour (figures are skewed since Champions events are usually measured over three days versus four for other Tours). But 40 years after it was founded, the PGA Tour Champions has long since ceased being a showcase for fading legends and is instead an annuity for journeymen who couldn’t draw a crowd if they were playing in thongs amid the many vigorous widows at The Villages.

This won’t present as a problem to players currently reaping the benefits of the Tour — and there are surely some who will be happy not to have greater competition at the trough — but Mickelson matters simply because there aren’t any more with his star power waiting in the wings. This is where we see the trickle-down effect of Tiger Woods having impoverished the trophy cases of a generation. Every Tour needs its superstar, and Mickelson is the last undisputed legend the PGA Tour Champions will see this side of Woods getting his AARP card six years hence. And a man with young kids and a broken body who doesn’t need the money probably isn’t a great bet to play either.

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