When Pat Riley was coaching the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, he came up with a term to explain why all dynasties eventually fall. Typically, they aren’t toppled from the outside. Most implode from within. He called it the Disease of More.
Athletes, by nature, are addicted to achievement. It’s part of what separates them from mortals. If they win one championship, they’re briefly satisfied, but the feeling soon fades and they are desperate for more. If they earn a million dollars, they’re ecstatic, but before long, it seems insufficient. They are convinced they need more. More of everything, more commercials, more followers on social media, more houses, more influence, even more romantic partners. The same forces that inspire you to work hard to get everything you ever wanted eventually consume you. Your wants simply mushroom. Millionaires long to be billionaires. Billionaires long to be kings.
Golf is currently afflicted with the Disease of More.
It has infected everything — the players, the executives, and even some of the media that covers it. (We’re not innocent here.) And while you can admire the ambition of someone who sees millions in their bank account and stews over the fact that it’s not yet billions, this particular strain of the Disease of More seems so contagious, there is a real chance it ends up consuming the sport’s entire essence.
I was thinking this week, after the news broke that the PGA Tour was going to partner with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, about the reasons I fell in love with the game of golf.
They had a lot to do with Phil Mickelson if I’m being honest.
There was something magnetic about his rapscallion charm on a golf course. I had a begrudging respect for Tiger Woods, but I found it hard to root for perfection. It took me years to warm up to him. I was drawn, instead, to someone who seemed more human, more vulnerable. Mickelson could be a swashbuckling fool, sure, but he was my fool.
On the golf course where I learned the game, there was a hole that I loved, a sharp dogleg left that was framed by rugged pine trees. The green was driveable — if you were willing to court disaster. It was a blind shot. Short was dead but so was long. You had no idea if you’d pulled off the shot until you reached the green. To hit an iron to the corner of the dogleg was the sensible play, it was only a wedge from there, but I couldn't resist trying to cut the corner, teeing the ball high and launching a drive up over the trees. I did it because that’s what Phil would do, chase the adrenaline rush. No feeling on a golf course has ever matched the rush of rounding the corner, squinting to see if my ball had landed on the green or bounded into the woods.
I don’t think I’ve ever rooted harder for someone than I did for Mickelson during the final round of the 2004 Masters. I jumped off my couch after each back nine birdie, desperately trying to will him to victory through the pixels of my television screen. The neighbors of my Baltimore row house were livid, pounding our shared walls to implore me to quiet down, but for a few hours, I didn’t care how impolite I was. I was invested in Mickelson’s journey, having suffered through all the disappointments, and this was the payoff.
I never once gave a single shit how much money Mickelson won that day.
Or any day, for that matter. It was the thrill of the chase that mattered.
I understand why Mickelson cared about the money. The value he brought to the game — the loyalty of people like me — allowed the PGA Tour and the majors to reap billions of dollars over the course of his career. By his estimate (and I think he was correct) people like him and Tiger offered the PGA Tour more value than they were receiving in return. Endorsement money was nice, but why shouldn’t Mickelson get an extra piece of the pie when people were clearly tuning in to see him play, not Kirk Triplett or Briny Baird?
Phil Mickelson wanted more. And he probably deserved more. Those frustrations set in motion seismic changes within the sport, but now we have reached a moment where the PGA Tour is trying to become the first American sport that is no longer tethered to reality.
The Disease of More has essentially removed fans from that equation. We no longer matter. Someone else is eager to foot a massive bill, and they would prefer you do not ask questions as to why.
Should we care?
It makes for an interesting thought exercise.
In every other sport, compensation has to be tied to revenue. Revenue has to be driven by interest, whether it’s measured in eyeballs tuning in, or tickets purchased. The Baltimore Ravens, for example, could sign Lamar Jackson to a $260 million contract this spring, the largest in NFL history, because a huge pile of money is generated by the interest in his abilities. If the interest in Jackson — or in similarly-talented players like Patrick Mahomes — suddenly waned, NFL players would eventually need to reflect that. Jackson might want more money, but the basic economic principles of profits and losses being tethered to each other would make it impossible.
Golf, though, is not the NFL. It is a niche sport, and it always has been. There was a time when Tiger nearly dragged it into the mainstream, and you could argue he deserved $200 million in guaranteed money, but that time has come and gone. He is not limping through that door any time soon. A lot of people in golf want to be paid like Lamar Jackson, but their skills (based on profits and losses) did not warrant similar compensation, and this was a frustrating reality to accept, so they have simply chosen not to accept it. The Saudis were happy to step in and satiate that economic insecurity.
What the last few weeks have revealed about golf is that, at the highest level, virtually everyone is a bullshit artist who has been duplicitous enough to say whatever the moment called for in order to justify their position. None of this, it turns out, has ever had anything to do with the 9/11 families, human rights concerns, LGBTQ rights, growing the game, shotgun starts, golf in Australia or disrupting the PGA Tour’s monopoly.
It was about power and money. Everyone at the top wanted more.
I still think there is a good chance this deal doesn’t go through, that it was hastily scrambled together by people desperate to save face. The Department of Justice, by all indications, will want to closely scrutinize everything. And there are a number of players — ones who showed glimpses of principle over the last year only to be blindsided by their commissioner — who are furious.
Whatever it is that PGA Tour executives and the Saudis are attempting to build, it has nothing to do with the people who love and watch the sport. It’s a passthrough that helps money and influence get redistributed. The golf is now completely secondary.
They’re going to hope you’ll support it, the way you always have, but let this week serve as a reminder that you don’t have to. Here is the brutal truth about the PGA Tour: Its greatest value has always been providing context for the majors. I grew aware of Phil Mickelson because he was a character on a weekly television show called the PGA Tour, but I only cared about him because of the majors. You can still watch and enjoy the majors without giving a second thought to the phony Sturm und Drang of the FedExCup. The majors may not be pure, but they still represent something more than a soulless cash grab.
The Saudis can buy up almost everything, and almost anyone, as long as the world runs on oil. But the reasons you love the game don’t have to go up for sale.
Find yourself a dogleg with a blind green, tee it high and swing boldly. Sip a cold beer and see how much of the afternoon sunshine you can possibly inhale.
The people squabbling over giant piles of money, because they can never be comfortable as long as someone else has more, will still be there if you ever want to return.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director at No Laying Up.