A homily popular among PGA Tour members is that they eat only what they kill, and that unlike other athletes they must perform to get paid. It’s never actually been true, at least for the top players—sponsors incentivize excellence, but they don’t withhold payment for missed cuts—and certainly not in this era of the Player Impact Program and the coming guaranteed money events, both of which will compensate regardless of on-course results.
Professional golf is a club whose members can feast on past glories long after they’ve started cashing social security checks. That’s why the PGA Tour Champions exists. It’s an honorarium masquerading as competition. Only the middle and lower ranks of PGA Tour players subsist on what they butcher with birdies. And yet there are some who would see those guys go hungrier still.
As job security goes, PGA Tour caddies enjoy about as much of it as Kim Jong Un’s inner circle, and often alongside an equally capricious man with absolute authority. Only in the manner of their dismissal do caddies have an edge on the Pyongyang cognoscenti.
The attributes Tour players seek in a wingman are as personal as fingerprints. Some require only punctuality and an accurate yardage. Others need more — help reading putts or pulling clubs or being talked off a ledge. There are players who want a friend on the bag, or a proxy psychologist or simply someone to blame. Good caddies know what the boss wants and mold accordingly. And if they’re successful, they’ll gain a solid enough reputation to get another bag when he fires them.
Jay Monahan earns around $4 million a year, which easily qualifies him as America’s most well-compensated babysitter. Yet it might barely exceed the hourly minimum wage given all of the extra work the PGA Tour commissioner just created for himself.
In every other major sport, regular season performance matters about the same in the post-season, which is to say not at all. At best, it earns home field advantage but has no material impact on the remaining action. Only in the PGA Tour’s playoffs is weight still given to what a man accomplished during the last administration.
The FedEx Cup Playoffs began Thursday with The Northern Trust at Liberty National, which sits a 15-minute ferry ride across the Hudson from lower Manhattan. Now in it’s 15th year, the FedEx Cup has undergone more tweaks than a Wall Street trophy wife. And yet it remains a tweak shy of perfection.
The PGA Tour returns this week to the birthplace of its most engaging tussle in recent memory, even if the most attentive fan would struggle to recall a single shot ever struck at Liberty National Golf Club.
On the morning of the final round of the Northern Trust two years ago—August 11, 2019 — I was standing by the practice putting green with Ricky Elliott and Claude Harmon III, respectively the caddie and (now former) coach of Brooks Koepka, when a clearly vexed Bryson DeChambeau approached and instructed Elliott to tell his boss to make any comments about slow play “to my face.”
It’s unsurprising that some golf fans with long memories would find it difficult to muster sympathy for Grayson Murray.
He’s an abrasive and ignorant social media presence who once told Black people they wouldn’t be shot by police if they just obeyed the law, and whose infamous Twitter exchange with a high school girl could be generously described as creepy.
Still, it was disheartening to see how frequently respondents to his most recent social media post evidenced the very same lack of empathy that Murray himself has often been accused of.
The relationship between professional athletes and the press is fraught by its very nature, moreso in the wake of Naomi Osaka suggesting that media questioning is injurious to her mental health. However, at this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, two of golf’s biggest stars seemed more concerned about damage to their pride and ego.
While it remains unclear how Brooks Koepka’s engagement strategy will impact his share of the PGA Tour’s $40 million bonus fund for players who “move the needle” with fans, there must already be a direct correlation between his social media posts and Jay Monahan’s Mylanta consumption.
The last couple of weeks — and in particular the last 24 hours — will have reminded the commissioner that the solution to one problem invariably creates other, intertwined sources of heartburn. In his bid to neuter the threat posed by a Saudi-financed rival tour, Monahan devised the Player Impact Program to bestow cash on the needle-movers and prevent their splitting.
The Crown Prince is nothing if not opportunistic, whether waiting until a dissident journalist enters the Istanbul consulate to have him dismembered or choosing an event with 20 club pros in the field to make his final pitch promising top players that they don’t have to share riches with also-rans.
On the eve of the 103rd PGA Championship, the chatter at Kiawah Island is less about potential winners of the year’s second major than a possible splintering of the (men’s) game if a sufficient number of elite players sign-on with the Saudi-financed Super League Golf for fees reported at $30 million or more. It’s a controversial concept that rumbled along for years in near-secrecy without gaining traction, but which seems now to be hurtling toward the decisive moment like an executioner’s sulthan.
A friend who knows him once told me that there are two Jay Monahans. “There’s Golf Jay and Hockey Jay,” he said of the mulish Boston native, “and you don’t want to meet Hockey Jay.”
It sounds as though it was Hockey Jay who addressed a meeting of PGA Tour players this week in Charlotte, at which the commissioner laid out in unambiguous terms the sanctions awaiting anyone who joins either of the splinter circuits promising gaudy sums in a bid to upend professional golf’s established order.
Every comeback success for a PGA Tour star has an inescapable corollary in that some other struggling player will be shunted into the crosshairs of pitiless commentators who were previously focused on his now-resurgent peer. For that reason alone, Jordan Spieth ought to stand Rickie Fowler a drink when they next meet.
Like all professional golfers, Fowler is accustomed to criticism. The slings and arrows of Strokes Gained statistics will draw blood from even the very best, much less someone struggling with swing changes who has managed only four top 20 finishes in the past year. But whereas Spieth was scrutinized almost exclusively for his on-course performance, judgments on Fowler seem less about play than perception, the chaffing sense among golf fans that he is coasting down Easy Street.
The most jarring revelation of the last 24 hours wasn’t that the PGA Tour will now reward its most prominent players regardless of performance, but that a sport hitherto known as a citadel of conservative capitalism actually harbors a wealth of socialist sentiment. How else to explain the convulsive reaction when Golfweek revealed the existence — previously unannounced by the Tour — of the Player Impact Program, which will dispense $40 million in bonuses to 10 stars deemed to have most moved the needle in terms of fan engagement?
On social media (always a reliable indicator of the broader world), a remarkable number of golf fans who usually genuflect at the altar of Adam Smith were apoplectic at the idea of wealthy players receiving money for such nebulous reasons, dollars that could be used to benefit the greater good, whether boosting purses in the minor leagues, rehiring Tour employees laid off during the pandemic or otherwise growing the game. In short, anything except further swelling Rickie Fowler’s already tumescent bank account.
Who knew it was so easy to convert the “up-by-the-bootstraps” brigade into Bernie bros?
Among the plentiful clichés permeating golf commentary, there is none more kindly yet bromidic than the assertion that a slumping star will win again simply because he or she is too good not to. It’s a polite fiction, peddled about almost every prominent professional who achieved early success only to plunge into, if not obscurity, then at least irrelevance. As analysis, it lies somewhere between sentimentality and sycophancy, but nowhere close to sound.
Golf’s recent run of resurrections began—appropriately enough, for those particular to the low-hanging fruit such narratives represent—on Easter Sunday, when Jordan Spieth won the Valero Texas Open for his first victory in almost four years. A week later, Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters triumph ended a drought of similar duration. And on Saturday, Lydia Ko completed the trifecta (or trinity) with a seven-stroke romp at the LPGA’s Lotte Championship after three years wandering the desert in search of a title.
Welcome to the only week of the year when the PGA Tour’s ardent free-marketeers develop a sudden appreciation for a safety net from the authorities. Specifically, the free passes issued for the first round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the day on which so many stars used to be dispatched early.
Now Wednesday’s losers live to fight another day. I blame Hunter Mahan and Victor Dubuisson.
It’s in the arbitrary nature of sport that even legends seldom exit the stage on a high note.
There are exceptions, sure.
Ted Williams homered in his last at-bat. Pete Sampras went home with the U.S. Open trophy. Lorena Ochoa quit as No. 1 in the world.
More often, great careers peter out with a ground ball like Babe Ruth’s, a series of increasingly disappointing results that finally force a reckoning with the passage of time. Those are the good endings. Others are involuntary, authored by injury or accident. Like that of Maureen Connolly, who won nine Grand Slams but saw her career end with a horse-riding accident at age 19, two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon singles title.
When news emerged about Tiger Woods’ car crash on Tuesday there was a clear and immediate delineation between Woods the man and Woods the golfer, with much of the focus rightly on the former and his physical well-being. An absence of detailed information about his condition, married to the visual of catastrophic damage to his vehicle, ensured that human concern was front and center.
As the day wore achingly on, that angle grew incrementally more positive with news that his injuries were not life-threatening. One could heave a sigh of relief for Woods the man.