News & Opinion

An all-star event without all of the stars

In a nod to its past, the PGA Tour invites its recent winners to Maui, but not everybody sees the beauty in starting the new year in a Tournament of Champions

You have to start somewhere. And on the surface, perhaps it’s a good idea to start a new year by paying tribute to the year past.

The feeling here is that a new start should be a new opportunity, not a no-cut guarantee for those who made bank last year to make some more, not a dispersal of FedEx Cup points available only to the aristocracy, not the proletariat. Sorry, but starving artists not welcome.

It’s the nature of the biz, just about every biz. “Haves” almost always enjoy a table near the front while the “have-not” party waits to be seated.

AT&T Pro-Am
Phil Mickelson, who won at Pebble Beach last year to qualify for this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, will be among a handful of PGA Tour winners who declined to celebrate the new year in Hawaii.

So it is with the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions, which begins Thursday at Kapalua (Hawaii) Resort and has batted leadoff on golf’s calendar for the past 20 years. Currently sponsored by Sentry, the event has been operated under other names, with other benefactors, in other locations. Since its last waltz in Carlsbad, Calif., in 1998, it’s been conducted on the Plantation Course on Maui, a track that counts 73 as par. If you ever shoot a 59, you’ll want to do it there for maximum value.

The PGA Tour already had the Sony Open in Hawaii when the T of C arrived. If you’re going to bring a circus to town, you’d might as well give everyone a chance to unpack and get a tan. So you see, the event is not “silly” by definition, which, according to Merriam-Webster, would mean it is “exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment.”

It comes from official stock; says so right there on the PGA Tour schedule. The rub is more about perception – a lack of Kessler Karain punch, if you will. The “Champions” in the title refers to the invite list – limited to those who won championships in the previous season. That is, it is a tribute dinner, an all-star game. But in that context, it has become increasingly insolent to fans and unimportant to many of its participants, much like similar events in other sports.

From the standpoint of the players – at least those foremost on the pass list – it’s perfectly understandable. Tiger Woods is skipping the event, as he has regularly, and why wouldn’t he? An emotional victory at the Presidents Cup just wrapped. He turned 44 on Monday and, according to Siri, he’ll be worth $800 million when markets open on Thursday. He needs a trip to Hawaii and a few more rounds of golf like he needs another back spasm.

Therein pulls the undertow. When these types of events were created – the T of C was founded in 1953 – players embraced them. In most cases, they needed the money, not to pad their accounts but simply to live. Long before TV and something such as Golf Channel existed, they welcomed the recognition and appreciated the honor. Today, the context has flipped.

Tiger Woods doesn’t need events; events need Tiger Woods … and Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka … and so on.

Their yearly schedule is filled with travel to exotic destinations. The top 20 on the PGA Tour money list earned at least 4.3 million playing in 2018-19, and the top 10 made at least $6 million, including FedEx Cup bonus money, topped by McIlroy’s $22.7 million. That doesn’t include lucrative sponsorship deals, corporate outings and whatever else they make for rolling out of bed in the morning. These numbers aren’t begrudged – well, maybe a little – but they suggest that money no longer is the all-powerful incentive.

The elite players have lots of money. They also have lots of travel, and in today’s world, they have more attention, favor and recognition than they could possibly want. What they don’t have a lot of is downtime.

Golf’s Tournament of Champions is not unique to sports in this way; it is emblematic. In hockey, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin was voted captain of the Metropolitan Division for the NHL All-Star Game in San Jose last year. He skipped the event and already he has announced that he will do the same when the 2020 game is played Jan. 25 in St. Louis.

Ovechkin is not ungrateful. He’s 34 years old, plays a demolition-derby style and has not missed a regular-season game voluntarily in four seasons. By the time the All-Star Game arrives, he likely will have played 49 times since Oct. 2. And if, as expected, the Capitals compete for a championship, he could play as many as 61 more times in the coming months. Oh, and the intensity and physicality will amp up along the way.

So, he is skipping the made-for-TV tribute to mend, rest and be at his best for his team. To that end, Ovechkin, who makes $10 million this season, is willing to miss a chance at an extra $90,000 for winning the 3-on-3 spectacle. What’s more, his penalty for such insubordination is a one-game suspension, which means he gets nine days of rest instead of eight.

Harry Truman said that “whenever it comes time to make a decision, I make it and forget about it.” Pretty sure Ovechkin has forgotten about this one.

Let’s turn to baseball. You might recall that the Nationals had two of its members – Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon – selected to the 2019 “Midsummer Classic.” Both bailed. It seems that Washington is both the nation’s capital and its truancy capital.

Scherzer made the decision right after throwing seven scoreless innings at the Royals. With some lingering back stiffness and a new baby at home, he wanted to be viable for the second half, and he made $42 million-plus last season. He chose to rest. If he hadn’t, maybe he wouldn’t have been available for Game 7 of the World Series.

Rendon also skipped to rest some minor injuries. If he hadn’t, maybe he wouldn’t have hit three postseason home runs for the World Series champions, and maybe the seven-year $245 million contract that he recently signed with the Angels would be slightly less opulent.

These are just examples. Other notable names from other cities, across other sports, have skipped these kinds of events. You can’t blame the respective leagues for staging them. There is significant revenue involved, programming to provide. And while all-star games generally draw well, the Tournament of Champions galleries answer one of the game's more compelling questions: “What if they held a PGA Tour event and nobody came?” It is the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl of golf.

The games will go on, an antiquated, romantic notion of what these events mean to some of the participants. They have the hammer.

In the warped culture that surrounds sports, the stars get gobs of spotlight, make boatloads of money and, in most cases, have schedules that are personally demanding and physically exhausting – before they are asked to hop on to another plane and play in a “unique” event.

Listen, they have a good field for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, with 13 of the top 30 in last season’s FedEx Cup standings (tee times). The event, and those like it, isn’t going anywhere soon. But the bloom is off the rose, and the instances of top names hitting the “skip” button has become a more fashionable trend.

The shark has been jumped.