News & Opinion

Tour should stop appeasing its lower tier

Change is one of golf’s biggest adversaries, a point made abundantly clear two months into 2019. Those complaints about the new rules? That’s just a symptom of tour pros forced out of their comfort zones. The endless whine about slow play? Golfers are creatures of habit, especially those whose habits have granted them access to millions upon millions of dollars in prize money.

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s a much tougher task when he’s living in a suite at the Chateau de Bow Wow and making $128,000 to finish T-14. The world’s best players always have been quick with a moan and a cause overblown, although they seldom do much when it actually comes to solving a problem.

As my good friend and longtime golf writer Jeff Rude recently said, “When I first broke in back in the late ’70s, I used to have to wear a yellow hard hat out there. Dave Hill, Leonard Thompson, J.C. Snead, Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green. Hard-boiled [bleepity bleeps].”

Not only that, but a large sector of the game’s fan base clings to its nostalgic sensibilities, swearing that things used to be a lot better when it’s easy to see they’re pretty much the same. We glorify the past because memories spawn appreciation and perspective, but Jack Nicklaus could take forever to hit a golf ball, and Ben Hogan wasn’t exactly Sammy Sunshine when it came to a pile of people wanting an autograph.

Arnold Palmer had his faults. Sam Snead let a bunch of big ones get away. Part of the problem in golf’s modern era is that the PGA Tour doesn’t do anything in terms of establishing and implementing a customized competitive infrastructure. Almost every rule in pro golf was written by another of the game’s governing bodies, ostensibly for the recreational player.

Camp Ponte Vedra never dabbles in equipment regulations or agricultural matters. It drafted a pace-of-play policy but eschews it the same way your son avoids his drunken uncle. The NFL and Major League Baseball constantly review their laws and legislative procedures, always searching for that elusive blend of common sense and commercial appeal.

The pass-interference penalty has undergone more alterations than Lady Gaga’s hair. No aluminum bats, a split verdict on the designated hitter, those silly mandates prohibiting anything more than a bro-hug on the quarterback.… These were landmark decisions intended to make those games better products.

Relatively speaking, golf does nothing. The PGA Tour’s idea of a useful amendment is to disqualify a player if he doesn’t have an approved excuse for missing the Wednesday pro-am. As long as the purses are huge and nobody’s getting arrested, our game is basically left to run on automatic pilot. It’s not really a sports league. It’s a capitalistic venture with a nice lunch buffet.

Maybe it’s time for the executive wing to get off its collective derriere and fix the leaky pipes and rusty hinges. “Speed of play is directly related to the size of the field,” former commissioner Deane Beman told me recently. “The tour semi-embraces the [lousy] pace because, if it didn’t, it would have to substantially reduce the number of players in a tournament.”

Beman may have just played through his 80th birthday, but the man still has plenty of zip on his fastball. “You trade off less opportunity for a little quicker pace, nobody’s going to embrace
that,” he said. “What can be done? Nothing.”

You don’t have to stuff 144 horses into the starting gate every week, however, which makes this a perfect example of how the Tour fails to adjust to meet its own needs. We’re talking about the most watered-down meritocracy in all of sports. Why is finding tee times for the 138th player just as important as taking care of those in the top tier?

More than football or basketball, pro golf is a star-driven enterprise. It relies on its premium performers to generate corporate interest, which produces the fiscal flow that makes wealthy guys out of its bloated middle class. There are a lot of players living off the fat of the land, all because of this perceived need to provide opportunity.

It’s not that the system doesn’t work, but that it could be a whole lot better. Chicks might dig the longball, but MLB outlawed aluminum bats long ago to protect the game’s integrity. The NFL babies its quarterbacks not only as a means of protecting the investment of ownership, but to make the product sexier and more fan friendly.

Salary caps might not be very effective, but they were conceived in an attempt to prevent big markets from buying championships. Replay has been adopted by every league to reduce human error and protect the concept of justice. Every major sport is a work in progress, a pretty fair indication that if you’re standing still in the 21st century, there’s a good chance you’re actually moving in reverse.

Pro golf has been stuck in neutral for a while, in a large part because the PGA Tour remains steadfast in focusing on its primary mission: to accommodate all of its members. There are a lot of ways to modernize the competitive element without turning the whole thing into a game show, and it’s worth noting that Tiger Woods won’t be around to drive the bus forever.

This would be a real good time for the Tour to start doing something other than occupying a passenger seat. The door’s open, but the ride ain’t free.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com