For an audio version read by KVV, listen below.
I’m often hesitant to assign much weight to anecdotal evidence, but this week, during one of the busiest seven-day stretches in the history of professional golf, I received a text from a friend that stopped me cold.
We don’t play golf together as much as we’d like, owing to our busy work schedules, but he follows the game closely and reads about it constantly. He listens to podcasts, watches videos, then shares them with friends. He is, in simplistic terms, a golf sicko. He also belongs to what is arguably the sport’s most coveted demographic: He owns his own business, he has disposable income, he isn’t married to any particular political ideology, and he buys new clubs as often as some people buy golf balls.
He wanted to let me know he was fed up with the professional game. Done with it.
He still loved the sport, and still looked forward to teeing it up together, but he wasn’t going to watch anymore. He might tune in for the majors, but that was probably it. The PGA Tour and LIV? All of it had started to feel a little gross. Everything going on — whether it was Jon Rahm’s departure to LIV; the squabbling over billions of dollars in equity in a potential merger between tours; even the governing bodies’ decision to try and curtail distance — left him feeling used.
“The fan experience,” he wrote, “is secondary at best. And fans don’t like getting fucked with.”
As someone who makes a living writing about golf, and frequently commenting on the professional game, I would love to pretend my friend is an outlier. He might be mad now, but this too shall pass, as the idiom goes.
In recent days, I’ve come to realize he is more likely the tip of the iceberg.
It is impossible to understate how many people have been turned off by what’s transpired over the last two years, by the litany of decisions that feel driven by greed, narcissism or stupidity. I came into this week thinking I supported the USGA and R&A’s rollback proposal. I had done the reading, weighed the complexities, and felt like it was a prudent decision. By week’s end, I began to feel like it was just one more instance where fans were being asked to pay for the sins of the professional game, whether it was in yards or dollars or time.
“Remember baseball after the 1994 strike?” my friend asked me. “If golf does the damage I think they’re doing, it may take another Tiger-like figure to bring people back.”
So how the hell did we get here?
The highest level of professional golf, for starters, has completely lost touch with reality.
Golf is a niche sport. It will always be a niche sport, certainly outside the majors. Deep down, golfers know this. They are aggressively uncool compared to other athletes. They get to have long careers and they get to rub elbows with wealthy, important people, business tycoons and heads of state, but their skills don’t move the needle.
We know LIV ratings have been laughable, so let’s ignore them for a second. Let’s take the PGA Tour’s most important event — The Players Championship — as Exhibit A when we examine the allegation of golf’s cultural irrelevance.
In 2023, the Players Sunday broadcast drew 2.83 million viewers. That was up 11 percent from the previous year.
Do you know how many people tuned in to watch Ohio State play Michigan in college football’s marquee regular season match-up? 19.07 million.
When the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles faced off recently, it was watched by 29.02 million people.
The most important event on the PGA Tour drew about 500,000 fewer eyeballs than a game between Iowa State and Kansas State.
Are we really supposed to believe, based on numbers like this, Rahm’s $450 million contract (who knows the real number when accounting for clauses and equity) is driven by a real market? It’s asinine.
When the Saudis came along and started looking for ways to launder their global reputation, a bunch of golfers suddenly became convinced they deserved to get paid significantly more than they had in the past. To be fair, that was their right. But in doing so, they have decided to take whatever goodwill their skills have built up (over many years) and light it on fire.
As easy as it would be to point the finger solely at those who went to LIV, there are very few innocent bystanders here. Those who stayed with the PGA Tour are now mud-wrestling over different piles of money and control. They do not seem to care if the sport (at least the professional version of it) is irrevocably broken in this process, as long as a handful of them achieve generational wealth.
I understand, in a micro sense, why Rahm went back on his word and took LIV’s money. He almost certainly looked at the mess that is the PGA Tour and realized he was under no obligation to support that clusterfuck of ego and uncertainty. I can’t pretend I know Rahm well, but I’ve been around him enough to know he is driven by pride more than money. He did not feel sufficiently valued by the PGA Tour, so why help them wade through a murky future when someone was dangling half a billion dollars in his face?
With all the private equity sharks circling the PGA Tour at the moment, many of them whispering in Tiger Woods’ ears about a way to box out the Saudis, you can understand why Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the Chairman of the Public Investment Fund, felt he had to make a bold chess move with Rahm. Whether the Masters winner is a knight or a pawn probably doesn’t matter, though I’m sure Rahm sees himself as the former, not the latter.
In a macro sense, I wish Rahm would have remained true to his word, because he is among the most thoughtful, principled, interesting people in professional golf. I fear he’ll be neutered now that it is part of his job to be a mouthpiece for an autocratic government. Perhaps he’ll prove me wrong, and I hope he does. It will be interesting to study his temper when his 2024 U.S. Open prep involves three rounds of team golf in front of dozens of fans at Golf Club of Houston in sweltering conditions in June. If the CW Network is still bothering to count viewers, they can put me down for that one.
I will almost certainly continue to follow professional golf — it is a big part of my job, after all — but I am not so sure about the dozens of people I play with regularly. They aren’t deeply entrenched in the pointless daily arguments of Golf Twitter. They don’t really care about OWGR points and certainly couldn’t name members of the 4 Aces. They like to squeeze in rounds when they can, have fun and give each other shit, drink a few beers during or after a round, and flip on football when they’re finished. It’s not a choice between supporting the PGA Tour or LIV, it’s a decision to ignore both. They might gamble a little, but a light bulb has gone off recently, and many fans have begun to wake up to the idea that almost no one involved in this Corporate Game of Thrones thinks about them at all.
For all the lip service paid to “growing the game,” it hasn’t led to less expensive equipment or access to elite private courses. Broadcasts are still choked to death by commercials, to the point where it made the Ryder Cup borderline impossible to watch. PGA Tour purses have grown so disproportionate to revenue that tournaments almost certainly won’t be able to meet the charitable obligations established in previous years — meaning communities will get the short straw. And because professional golfers threw a tantrum when the governing bodies proposed the idea of bifurcation, now amateurs are looking at a future where their version of golf won’t quite be the same. Will the game get harder? It’s possible. At the very least, they’re going to lose some distance because the best golfers on the planet recoiled at the suggestion they give up some of theirs.
For years, we’ve been told that the biggest argument against bifurcation is that amateurs (when surveyed) believe there is an essential link between regular golfers and professional golfers. We want to believe we all occupy the same universe, and when we daydream at our local muni, we can pretend we are Jon Rahm trying to win a major. That bridge between the two worlds has long been deemed imperative.
But what happens if the opposite becomes true?
What if regular hacks are so turned off by the selfish nonsense of professional golf, that they start to realize they don’t need any of it to love and appreciate the game? It feels like that day may be here sooner than most pros realize. Some, I suspect, couldn't care less regardless. They will be set for life — so who cares?
Pity the next generation of professional golfers if the current infusion of oil money ever dries up. We might have to pass the collection plate around for them. There may not be enough fans to support the husk of what’s left.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.