News & Opinion

PGA Tour finds convenient partner to minimize scrutiny

Golf media scrum
In a post-pandemic world, media members struggle for access to players on the PGA Tour, which John Hawkins contends is just the way the Tour likes it.

Just as tennis star Naomi Osaka seeks to sidestep media, PGA Tour uses COVID-19 to halt serve-and-volley by would-be critics

As the world moves one day closer to life without facial coverings, women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka already has traded in her mask for a combat helmet. Citing the mental-health hazards she attributes to speaking with the media during a tournament, Osaka announced last week – on Twitter, of course – that she wouldn’t make herself available for interviews during the French Open.

Tu es fou, fille?

There are times when it’s hard to tell the difference between a mountain and a molehill, others when it just smells like a pile of something else. Osaka’s embargo, be it a crusade or charade, is the emotional handiwork of a 23-year-old who made $55 million in 2020. More money than any female athlete ever in a single year, and that was without a Wimbledon. This enviable combination of youth and wealth can lead to a sense of empowerment, which Osaka has earned, and entitlement, which she hasn’t and never will.

In all of her newfound fame and glory, the young lady doesn’t like to be told what to do. Osaka makes that clear in her Twitter statement, as she refers to the media “kicking a person while they’re down” and speaks of the game’s governing bodies ordering players to “do press or you’re gonna be fined.” Indeed, the four organizations that oversee the Grand Slam events docked the four-time major champion $15,000 on Sunday for failing to meet her contractual obligations, one of those code-of-conduct violations the tennis honchos seem to love.

Osaka to me, baby? Fifteen grand to her is a dime to you and me. Still, it registers as a fastball in on the chin of a talented performer whose vast riches are as much a product of the sport’s commercial infrastructure as her ability to strike a fuzzy green ball. As for Osaka’s claim that dealing with the media imperils her mental health, puh-leeze. How can anyone so competitively tough appear to be so socially fragile?

Unless you make $55 million a year or harbor a serious grudge against due process, you probably shouldn’t be surprised that Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday. Too bad. This little calamity was just starting to produce a bit of polarizing intrigue.

OK, you’re wondering, so what does all this have to do with golf? With each passing year, the PGA Tour’s intent on controlling the message transmitted to the public becomes more obvious. Unlike pro tennis, which has a very limited presence on the major networks and must fight to maintain its relevance in the mainstream, the Tour can be found on CBS or NBC every weekend from mid-January to early September.

Its viewing audience isn’t massive, but it is nicely sized and fairly consistent, with demographics that have long been greatly appealing to high-end advertisers. The Tour’s formula is a winner, which puts it in a position to tell CBS and NBC how it wants its product presented. The WTA doesn’t have that luxury, which is why Osaka’s media embargo could evolve into a problem with serious long-term ramifications.

The PGA Tour doesn’t have such behavioral problems. Image is everything to Camp Ponte Vedra, which treasures Joe Sixpack’s perception that its players are squeaky-clean family guys who never have a bone to pick with company policy or the protective nature of the parent operation. Although a vast majority of them fit that description, the Tour’s heavy-handed method of overseeing its constituency can be classified as domineering, even paranoid.

Media access, especially for print journalists, has been significantly reduced (and deprioritized) over time, and as one longtime writer points out, “COVID-19 just gave them the opportunity to restrict access more.” Since the pandemic-related suspension of play was lifted last June, only the Tour’s “broadcast partners” and designated pool reporters are allowed direct contact with the players. Scribes who have traveled to tournaments for decades are, at least until further notice, barred from the practice green, driving range and clubhouse.

It all makes the latest chapter of the Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau feud even more amusing. Koepka was basically hung out to rot by a video outtake leaked by someone who works for one of those broadcast partners. It generated the type of controversy the Tour despises, a hairpin curve that many followers of the game surely found interesting. The Tour doesn’t want you to know things like that, doesn’t want such unsavory matters to receive so much attention. However harmless, the episode serves as a clear example of how Camp Ponte Vedra has lost its perspective.

It’s all about controlling the message. Indeed, COVID-19 has served as an excellent cause in the Tour’s mission to turn the written word into a meaningless entity, a manageable nuisance. The networks pay zillions of dollars to televise the action, and by force of habit or the Tour’s insistence, accompany that visual with endless happy talk and loving puff. There is very little or unabashed impartiality in golf journalism anymore. Criticism, however justifiable, has become taboo, simply because it isn’t good for business.

If you’re a serious golf fan and you think none of this matters, you might want to reconsider that viewpoint. Such overt favoritism to broadcast partners – at the expense of all other media platforms – is a dangerous step by a highly successful sports empire that has strayed from what should be one of its primary objectives: to credibilize its standing in the mainstream and enlighten those who devote the time and effort to remain passionate about the product.

It affects you a lot more than it does anyone who calls the PGA Tour a vital part of his livelihood. By no small estimation, it affects all of us.

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