Every so often, a small group of people within the world of professional golf will behave in a manner that makes you question why you spend so much time caring about the game.
They essentially view the sport as an accounting exercise, a series of profits and losses, and it is clear they spent very little time thinking about the people who drive those figures. There is an assumption, one that is rarely questioned, that market forces will always reward them, and that a backlash will never emerge.
It is, at best, naive.
At worst, it’s soulless and cynical.
On an intellectual level, I actually agree with Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele (and even Phil Mickelson!) about the value of labor. People’s interest in golf does generate billions of dollars in revenue, and it’s perfectly fine to have occasional discussions about how that revenue should be distributed.
Having that discussion in the middle of a Ryder Cup, however, is enough to make you want to puke.
It would be wise for players to remind themselves of this reality: You have every right to care about how much money you make, but fans are not going to care. Virtually no one watches professional golf because they’re in awe of the purse sizes or appearance fees, as the ratings for LIV Golf over the last two years have clearly demonstrated.
By all means, fight for what you think you deserve. As Mickelson hinted at this week, he’s still making chess moves. But caveat emptor to anyone on that journey.
It’s easy to be a curmudgeon, of course, a trap I fall into from time to time. You can spend a lot of time grumbling about the stuff that annoys you, or you can choose to appreciate what brings you joy. It’s an exercise that got me thinking this week: What did I see in golf the last few months that made me grateful the sport is such a big part of my life?
I want to start with Rafael Campos.
Campos is, admittedly, not someone I was aware of before the Korn Ferry Tour Finals aired last week. To describe him as a PGA Tour journeyman would be generous. He has been a professional since 2011, but in that time, he’s made little more than a ripple in his career. He has bounced around golf’s minor leagues, grinding in virtual anonymity, occasionally getting status on the PGA Tour and then letting it slip from his fingers. There have been injuries and slumps and bogeys, and also just enough flashes of something to keep hope alive. In 2021, he led the Puerto Rico Open after 54 holes and finished 3rd. A month later, he finished 2nd to Joel Dahmen in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, a stretch that was good enough to make him feel like he’d turned a corner. Every golfer has been there. You grab on to a certain swing thought — or feel — and convince yourself you’ve cracked the code, that you’re an artist with an iron in your hands. This is going to carry you to the promised land, you tell yourself, knowing deep down it’s a lie.
Whatever Campos found those two weeks wasn’t sustainable. It so rarely is for mortals. He missed 10 of his next 15 cuts. Now deep into his 30s, his body was riddled with constant pain. He went back to the Korn Ferry Tour, and made just five cuts in 19 starts. He was teetering on the verge of despair. Time, he understood, was running out.
He hired a trainer. A nutritionist. A chiropractor. He went all in on 2023. And for the first time in years, he was able to play a full season without injuries. He played solid throughout the Korn Ferry Tour season, compiling enough points to enter the Finals in 23rd place, seemingly in good position to earn his PGA Tour card (awarded to those who finish in the Top 30.) But over the course of the tournament, the dream started to slip away. A few wayward swings here and there, and he slid down the standings. The pressure was mounting.
He came to the very last hole needing to make a birdie to finish 30th. He knew it, too. Campos stood over an 8-foot putt for what felt like a century. He took one last look, then sent it — and all his hopes — trickling toward the hole.
He was 31st in the standings. Campos crouched down, put his elbows on his knees and looked like golf (in all its cruelty) had broken him.
I have never had a putt that meant even a fraction as much, that truly mattered beyond my own oafish pride, but I understood exactly how Campos felt in that moment. His nerves had dashed all his hopes down the stretch. Knowing you are mentally fragile, and being unable to do anything about it in the moment, might be golf’s most devilish trick.
“Horrible,” Campos said, when asked to describe how he felt after the miss. “Honestly, horrible.”
The story could have ended there. It probably should have, because it usually does. But an unlikely 2-stroke penalty by another player in the Korn Ferry Finals, Shad Tuten, offered a reprieve. Tuten had taken an improper drop on the 15th hole, a misunderstanding with no advantage gained, but a clear violation.
When all the accounting was done, Tuten was outside the Top 30. Campos was in.
None of this would have ended up on my radar if Campos hadn’t agreed to an interview with Chantel McCabe of Golf Channel. The interview — which you should watch here, because reading the quotes could never convey them properly — was like watching a middling professional golfer perform a masterful version of Hamlet. You can watch Campos wrestling with joy and anguish and love and bewilderment. He is on the verge of tears the entire time. His family had come to Indiana to support him. He’d felt like he’d put them through a lot to chase this dream. Now he was trying to wrap his brain around the idea that it was okay to celebrate with them.
“God, it’s tough,” he says. “I’m tired. It’s been a long year. A lot of thoughts, positive and negative. I just kept on thinking about the work I put in this year. God, I put in so much work. I’m really happy it paid off.”
It was, for me, a reminder of how tormenting golf can be, how much heartache it can cause, how embarrassing it is to feel like you’re going to throw up in the middle of your backswing.
And yet there are the rare times when the sun shines on you and you get an unlikely reprieve.
“What a year,” Campos said.
Luke Donald was a little surprised by the question.
The Ryder Cup victory press conference was in full swing, celebratory beers had already been poured, and the European party was just on the other side of the doors. Shane Lowry and Tyrrell Hatton looked, mentally, like they were already there. The mood of the room was jubilant.
But then Donald, the European captain, fielded a question from a perceptive journalist that gave him pause: Have your parents been on your mind at all today? If they were alive, what would they think about their son in this moment?
I was sitting maybe 20 feet from Donald as he turned this question over in his mind. It was obvious he was genuinely contemplating it, and he was moved by the thought. Donald’s father, Colin, died unexpectedly 12 years ago, at a time when Donald was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. His mother, Ann, passed away more recently. As he was speaking, Lowry reached over and put a hand on Donald’s shoulder.
“I miss them, of course,” Donald said. “I would have loved to share this moment with them.”
One of my favorite things about golf is the way it stitches together generations, not just of parents and their children, but also of the people who taught you the game or put a club in your hands for the first time and turned you loose. Donald understands this better than most. It’s why he surprised his team on the eve of the Ryder Cup with individual 2-minute videos he’d commissioned for each player. In the clips, family members and loved ones spoke directly to each European Ryder Cup member, saying how proud they were.
By the time it was over, most of the players on the receiving end were in tears. I thought about those videos throughout the week when I watched Jon Rahm, after his matches were over, dart around the course as a fan, bouncing from tee box to green to offer fist pumps of encouragement for every teammate he could find.
“It's really, really important to not just play for each other but play for those that mean the most to you,” Donald said. “I think that's super powerful.”
Golf wasn’t everything to Donald’s parents. He offered that up as a reminder. They wanted him to lead not just a balanced life, but an honorable one. In the weeks following the Ryder Cup, I kept returning to the idea that the perfect man to lead the team had not been Europe’s first choice, how that distinction had gone instead to Henrik Stenson.
Stenson had lost the job when he couldn’t resist the allure of a lucrative guaranteed contract with LIV Golf. He made a decision that was the right one for himself. Donald stepped in and not only rescued the European Tour from embarrassment, but he did such an impressive job, that there were already calls for him to keep the gig for another spin in 2025. They would have appreciated the win, he said, but they would have been even more proud of how he conducted himself as captain.
“I think that's why we always play this game,” Donald said. “It's not just for ourselves. That's what makes the Ryder Cup so special – is we play it for the people that mean so much to us. Certainly, my parents meant a lot to me. Yeah, they would be very proud.”
Two weeks away from your kids can feel like an eternity when they’re growing up.
A trip to Rome to cover the Ryder Cup, then a buddies golf trip to Forest Dunes right after, sounded like an enviable adventure when I booked it. But by the end of the fortnight, I was short on sleep, my feet were on fire, and I was missing my family. When my flight touched down at BWI, I was ready to put golf on the backburner for a bit.
Time doesn’t stand still, however, just because you’re exhausted.
No one — no matter how much they love you — wants to hear that you might need a vacation to recover from your vacation. And time certainly doesn’t stand still when you’re an 11-year-old girl who loves golf and you want to show your dad all the progress you’ve made in your game since he flew across the Atlantic Ocean. So the day after I returned from my golfing sojourn, I climbed in the car with my daughter and headed (once again) to the golf course. She was slated to play a match in her weekly league, this one against two high school boys.
On the rare occasions when I write about my daughter’s golf game, I don’t want to deceive you into thinking she’s some kind of prodigy. She is not. When Lexi Thompson was 12 years old, she played in the U.S. Women’s Open; six months from now, my daughter will be that same age, and I’ll be grateful just to buy a ticket for us. (Breaking 100 in tournament conditions from the junior tees is about where we’re at right now, which is still a thrill.)
It’s a trip, however, to monitor a young golfer’s progress at this age. While I was overseas, Keegan’s other set of parents sent me a series of videos of her most recent swings. (Youth sports are often the shared love language between divorced families, if you’re not aware.) I could already tell from the grainy footage the ball was jumping off her clubface with more speed, but to see it in person — like when she smoked a 3 wood onto the final green when I was on the verge of telling her to lay up — felt like witnessing a magic trick.
One second, the magician throws a sheet over a young girl and waves his arms around as a distraction. The next minute a young woman emerges. The magician is time, and you can’t quite piece together how he does it.
In a match against two high school boys, my daughter was firing at tucked pins, rolling in birdies, taking deep breaths and refusing to back down. As hard as they tried, they couldn’t beat her. The word pride felt like an insufficient descriptor.
At the Ryder Cup on Saturday, I watched Rory McIlroy hit one of the best shots I’ve ever seen someone hit, a majestic 3 wood into the 16th green that carried 300 yards and tumbled out of the sky like a raindrop. An entire amphitheater of people went bonkers. You could feel the ground shake. My friend Kyle Porter and I were still talking about it a week later. It was the best 3 wood I’ve ever seen in person.
It was also the second-best 3 wood I saw this month.
There is no shortage of joy in the game, even as money threatens to consume so many parts of it.
You just have to be open to it and remind yourself where to look.