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?
Oftentimes, the most revealing number in a professional golfer’s ledger isn’t one found among the many Strokes Gained categories, those statistics that speak to fairways, greens and putts, but not to a man’s drive, devotion or distractions. With the enigma that is Rickie Fowler, the most illuminating figure is this: 11 years into his career, he has more commercial sponsors than PGA Tour victories.
And it’s not even close.
There was a period when Fowler’s ample screen time on Sunday afternoons was earned through his fine play. Now that time is paid for by a seemingly endless parade of partners confident that Fowler can help them sell everything from insurance and automobiles to mortgages and underwear. It’s the Arnold Palmer business model, and more power to Fowler for leveraging it so astutely. But at what cost to his career?
Triangulation is an indispensable strategy in politics and commerce, deftly positioning oneself as an alternative both above and between the stale, established options. Just such an approach is evident in Premier Golf League, which aspires to be a new global tour for golf’s superstars.
Every promise of what this hypothetical tour will deliver — elite fields, colossal prize money, fresh formats, elevated viewing options, even tax revenue — carries a none-too-subtle subtext that both players and fans are ill-served in these areas by existing Tours and their broadcast partners. There’s an element of truth in this, but a different triangulated analysis lays bare a troublesome reality for any new tour: without players, there is no money; without money, there are no players; without both, there is no broadcast deal. And six years after the idea for this new tour first emerged, all it has produced is more name changes than Zsa Zsa Gabor’s wedding registry.
When Darren Clarke steps to the tee at Royal Portrush at 6:35 a.m. Thursday morning and gets the 148th Open Championship underway, he will become the first Northern Irishman to fire a shot here and have it universally welcomed.
That observation may be trite, but whistling past the graveyard is a common personality trait among those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland during what we euphemistically called ‘the Troubles.’ And Thursday will be just the latest in a series of days that once seemed so improbable as to be barely worth the dream.
There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.
Superman teed off with a one-stroke lead in the Masters Tournament on Sunday, but as is often the case in the final round at Augusta National, it was a shell-shocked and defeated Clark Kent who staggered home.
Jordan Spieth had been atop the Masters leaderboard for the better part of three years. On his debut in 2014, he finished second. He won wire-to-wire in 2015, a dominance that continued through the first three rounds this year. By the time he turned for home at 5:05 p.m. this Sunday, Spieth’s lead was five shots. But for every dream realized on the closing holes at Augusta National, several nightmares are made real. By 5:50 p.m., the coronation had become a crucifixion.