News & Opinion

Upstart tour wouldn’t make a world of difference

Not when you consider that only 1 American, Brooks Koepka, from among the world’s top 15 ranked players will be playing this week’s Honda Classic, which is in the backyard of many U.S. stars

If Jimmie Johnson isn’t the Tiger Woods of NASCAR, he’s pretty close. Nobody in the history of auto racing has won more Cup Series championships (seven), nor can anyone match Johnson’s record of five consecutive titles. His 83 career wins are one more than Woods has on the PGA Tour, so Johnson has a very attentive financial analyst and a trophy case the size of Botswana.

None of those numbers, however, means more to me than zero. That’s how many races Johnson has skipped since 2002, his rookie season. Eighteen years, 36 starts in every one of them. No week off for a cousin’s wedding, no little break after an entire summer of very loud automobiles moving at 200 miles per hour.

In a related development, just one of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking will tee it up at this week’s Honda Classic.

Brooks.Koepka.2020.abu.dhabi.jpg
Brooks Koepka will be the only American ranked among the world’s top 15 who will be playing this week’s Honda Classic.

Why on earth would anyone start a world tour when attendance is so dismal on the one we already have? Four of the top six players in the Honda field are foreigners. Brooks Koepka, bum knee and all, is the lone American ranked in the top 15, which is crazy when you figure that a dozen or so name-brand guys live within a half-hour of PGA National.

They don’t even have to gas up the jet. They could get Johnson to drive them, but he’ll be busy.

No sports league benefits from a greater level of commitment than NASCAR, which is ironic, given how auto racing has lost a considerable amount of its visibility and market share in recent years. Every driver shows up at almost every event. Denny Hamlin has missed one race in the past five years, which is one more than Brad Keselowski has missed since 2010.

Pro golf? Are you kidding? The top-tier tour pros compete in fewer than half of the tournaments these days, triggering a haves-and-have-nots stratification throughout the schedule, which forces the PGA Tour to find new title sponsors at the lesser gatherings every few years or so. And wouldn’t you know it: the more successful that a player becomes, the less likely he is to support those events.

It’s a dangerous way to do business, although Camp Ponte Vedra wouldn’t dare admit it. Woods fuels the motor that keeps the locomotive churning, but he won’t be around forever. The rest of the stars simply have no reasonable excuse for showing up at 18-20 events a year, which is an unhealthy consequence to a game in which a tie for 13th earns $175,000.

The Tour takes pride in providing a bounty of riches for its players – and the big boys reciprocate by taking 25 weeks off. It’s called “load management” in the NBA, another athletic enterprise that is getting a bit big for its britches. Too much money eventually dissolves into a mind-altering poison; the effect is something that a niche sport such as golf is ill-equipped to handle.

As for those who would claim that competing against the finest golfers in the world is mentally exhausting, one might counter that hopping into a vehicle decked out in commercial stickers and massive horsepower isn’t exactly a walk in the park, which golf certainly is. The best of the best don’t play more often because they don’t have to. Independent contractors? Sure, but you’d better be careful not to exercise too much of that independence.

Camp Ponte Vedra has tiptoed around the issue in recent years, catering to the players because it’s in the mission statement, but also because ruffling feathers can backfire louder than a souped-up Dodge. The turnout in Los Angeles two weeks ago was exceptional, with nine of the top 10 in the world assembling at Riviera, but I was slightly taken aback when the Tour announced that it was the strongest field at a standard event in 13 years. Really? There’s something wrong with a league in which the elite don’t square off en masse more than a half-dozen times each season.

It shouldn’t be as hard as trying to put the Beatles back together. Pro golf is not a contact sport. A vast majority of NFL players spend four months smashing into one another with but a single bye week to catch their breath. Tour pros, meanwhile, are a lot like thoroughbred horses. They run hard once or twice a month and spend the rest of the time eating sugar cubes.

The Tour did pass a rule in 2016 requiring those who didn’t play in at least 25 tournaments to add a new event to their schedule the following season. One they hadn’t entered in four or more years, which was a placid way of admitting to a problem while trying to strengthen the overall product. Guess what? The players aren’t adding starts on their own, and the problem is no less serious than it was four years ago.

Jimmie Johnson might refer to that as engine trouble.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.