News & Opinion

PGA Tour players enjoy best of both worlds ... for now

PGA Championship
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and their colleagues on the PGA Tour never had it so good. With no pro-ams or spectators, and only minimal media interruptions, the PGA Tour’s players have enjoyed a good walk unspoiled since the PGA Tour restarted its season in early June, but that dynamic will have to change soon, Alex Miceli contends.

Since golf resumed in June, PGA Tour players have competed without the burden of pro-ams, spectators and most media, but that will have to change for sponsors, and likely very soon

NORTON, Mass. – Target, Walmart and Zoom are pandemic-stock stars that have thrived and are expected to outperform the market because of an anticipated revenue untick post-pandemic, whenever that might occur.

On the sports front, the PGA Tour has been one of the stars of the pandemic, playing for millions of dollars a week, without fans and with few incidents of COVID-19 infections since resuming play in early June.

But unlike those high-flying public companies, the PGA Tour cannot continue on its path indefinitely.

Fans, hospitality, sponsorship and rights fees are all part of the Tour’s business model, and since resuming play 2½ months ago, fans and hospitality have been shut out.

Though the TV ratings of professional and amateur golf have registered considerable upticks, viewership in and of itself does not pay all of the bills, nor does it justify the value proposition for certain tournament sponsors.

Generally, sponsors get involved with professional golf for three reasons: brand awareness, hospitality and charitable giving.

Since the season restart June 11 at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the only part of the value-proposition package to be engaged has been brand awareness.

At the same time, the purses that are contractually set in the sponsorship agreement have not been reduced. Meanwhile, other contractual provisions – notably, pro-ams, among the biggest benefits to sponsors and tournaments – have been shelved.

To supplement the value propositions, the PGA Tour has introduced the virtual pro-am, during which three players and the pro-am partners of nine or 12 join on a Zoom-type call of 30-45 minutes for players and their pro-am partners to interact.

This week at the Northern Trust, the first of three FedEx Cup playoff events, 40 players were expected to participate over two days in the virtual pro-am. But how long can sponsors that are paying millions of dollars be willing to accept this alternative as other major professional tours conduct traditional pro-ams?

“I just think you have to be safe rather than sorry,” Justin Thomas said. “It's something where they are such a huge impact to our tournaments and our tour, but at the end of the day, the [PGA] Tour has done a great job of having virtual pro-ams and still having the interaction, and not having the physical touch and that part of the interaction.”

The Champions and Korn Ferry tours are conducting traditional pro-ams this week at their respective tournament sites in Columbus, Ohio, and Ridgedale, Mo.

It’s reasonable for a sponsor to ask, Why hold pro-ams on the other tours but not on the PGA Tour?

Regarding health and safety, PGA Tour events still must accommodate a lot of people onsite, with television, ShotLink volunteers, media and support personnel required, said Tyler Dennis, the Tour’s chief of operations.

Because of the number of personnel onsite compared with the limited number of individuals needed on the Champions and Korn Ferry tours, which do not use ShotLink and attract limited media coverage, the additional pro-am participants can fit.

According to Dennis, those pro-ams don’t have the familiar bells and whistles that include draw parties and caddies. “It’s just about the golf,” he said.

While the PGA Tour has succeeded in its restart, with only a limited number of COVID-19 infections and none reported in the past month, the next step will be to look at making adjustments to the health-and-safety protocols.

“Whenever the PGA Tour thinks it's proper, it's the right time,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “I will defer to the PGA Tour. I guess you could say their diagnosis of when it would be the best time for fans to come back and pro-ams to come back.”

When will it be proper?

The Tour has to make some hard decisions, and likely sooner rather than later, as the generosity of the sponsors soon could wane.

At the same time, even though the touring pros say they want to see pro-ams and fans back as soon as possible, the players are living a charmed life of practicing and competing with very few distractions, and on their own schedules.

Recently, when the reintroduction of spectators was discussed, sources said the 16-man Player Advisory Council told Tour leadership that players were not comfortable with fans onsite yet.

But at some point, the Tour will have to convince its players that pro-ams and spectators need to return – maybe not to the extent of before the pandemic but on a limited basis – until a vaccine is readily available.

If not, the purse, which this week in the Northern Trust at TPC Boston will be $9.5 million, will become a memory amid fading sponsor interest.

Don’t expect it to happen, though. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan knows the importance of bringing pro-ams and fans back quickly but also responsibly.

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