Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.
The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.
Most of the 121 men in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are judged by a straightforward metric: a scorecard that documents the ebb and flow of their work day. Global brands — whether a corporation or an individual athlete — are measured against more complex and fluid standards, like the company they keep, the actions they take, the conscience they evidence.
These are not benchmarks against which golf has traditionally fared well. Until Thursday.
In the first round at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy opened with a round of 66 that amply demonstrated his celebrated skill as a player. What followed established him as a leader.
As cris de coeur go, Premier Golf League’s opening salvo sounded less passionate than petulant. The proposed rival circuit to the PGA Tour sent its first tweet on Friday, one that included an audacious appeal to individualism given that it is partly financed by a regime that dismembers free thinkers.
“Nobody owns golf,” the message read. “Golf is owned by everyone who enjoys it, watches it, and thinks about it – in other words, you. #PGL”
As an implicit call to arms against the reign of King Jay of Ponte Vedra, it fell flat. But that idea of ownership – not of the game, but of the players –explains why the League’s CEO, Andrew Gardiner, has finally moved into the open to speak publicly. He was on a salvage operation after Rory McIlroy holed the entire concept below the waterline earlier in the week.
The 148th Open Championship was foreshadowed with ample focus on what divides the people of this island —politics, religion, reactions to Rickie Fowler’s wardrobe — so it was only appropriate that a man who embodies many of the traits that unite them should emerge as Champion Golfer of the Year.
Only his exquisite command of a golf ball distinguishes Shane Lowry from any Irishman you’d get from central casting. He is a dry wit, is fond of a pint, is colorful with his language, is devoted to his family and is a stranger to the gym. He looks like a man more likely to be guarding the Claret Jug than having his name engraved on it, but he’s undeniably a man you’d want to be drinking from it with.
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.
Golf nourishes itself with low-hanging narratives, those saccharine, feel-good tales about lives redeemed or neighborhoods rejuvenated thanks to the royal and ancient game. Stories of golf as a power for good often hold a seed of truth that eventually reaps an acre of corn. Eighty-seven days from now, folks who peddle this kind of claptrap will have a field day as the 148th Open Championship kicks off at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
The parables are so predictable that they write themselves long before a single shot is struck.
It’s doubtful Cicero had the PGA Tour’s pace of play policy in mind when he wrote “The more laws, the less justice,” but his pithy philosophy is no less applicable. The Tour’s code runs four pages and is a masterclass in authoring rules designed to be unenforceable.
Consider the particulars. Players are permitted 40-50 seconds to play their shots depending on the order of play in a group, but exceeding that limit doesn’t incur a bad time. For a group to be officially considered out of position they not only have to exceed the allotted time to play a shot but also reach a hole that is open and free of play. Only then does a group go on the clock. The punishment for that bad time is, well, nothing. A second bad time earns a one-stroke penalty, the third gets two. A DQ only comes at four. The fines levied are so meager as to be meaningless.
The most imbecilic mind on Tour would struggle to parse the policy but not to manipulate it.
Two golfers I met this year remain lodged in my memory as 2018 sees itself out, but you won’t find their names in an accounting of FedEx Cup points or on Ryder Cup team rosters.
I met Mark Hensby for dinner in Scottsdale last February. He was four months into a well-documented suspension from the PGA Tour that left him feeling frustrated, angry and anxious to resume his career. In July, I sat beneath the R&A Clubhouse in St. Andrews with Vicente Fernandez, who had traveled from his home in Buenos Aires and successfully qualified for the British Senior Open at the age of 72. He was charming in his old-school manners, thankful for one last shot at golf’s most iconic venue.
They could not be more opposite in disposition, Hensby and Fernandez, but golf has a way of acting like connective tissue to link otherwise wildly disparate people and places. Hensby and Fernandez were two guys who just wanted to play golf.
When Rory McIlroy recently answered a routine question about his schedule for 2019, it was treated as golf’s equivalent of Brexit – a shocking and foolhardy distancing from Europe.
“I am starting my year off in the States and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August, and then we will assess from there,” he said. “I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out, and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do.”
McIlroy was speaking at the European Tour’s season-ending event in Dubai and knew he would draw incoming fire for his candor.
“Everyone has to look out for themselves,” he said. “And next year, I’m looking out for me.”
Only in the city that promoted Mayweather-McGregor as a fair fight and Liberace as a sex symbol could Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be considered rivals. “The Match” is fresh evidence that Las Vegas can distort any reality just long enough to separate a rube from his billfold.
The Ryder Cup had its share of weekend thrills for fans, but for players the drama began much earlier. Tuesday evening, to be exact. And not at Le Golf National but seven miles away at the Trianon Palace hotel, which was home to both the U.S. and European teams. That’s when officials from the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) arrived unannounced to conduct random drug tests.
The players had reason to be surprised. It was the first time drug tests were administered at a Ryder Cup. That it happened in Paris should be less surprising. The French take their anti-doping laws seriously. That’s why Lance Armstrong now owns as many Tour de France victories as Jack Nicklaus.
It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.
This ought to be a week that Shaun Micheel savors, returning to a major championship where he can wrap himself in gauzy memories of his finest achievement. Instead, he approaches the 100th PGA Championship with a familiar gnawing anxiety, conscious that every mention of his “once upon a time” fairytale victory in 2003 brings detractors eager to emphasize the “once.”
“I look forward to getting back, but I have some trepidation about the noise that’s going to start appearing on social media before too long,” he said last weekend.