Professional golf is become more and more disconnected from the average player Professional golf used to be spared from the scandal, bad vibes, huge contracts and greed and disruption of all the other spectator sports (football, basketball, baseball etc.). In addition, the golf fan plays the game and can relate directly to the skills, course management and behavior of the professional player. Golf discussions among amateurs in the media centered around which professional (s) would be favorites to win the four major tournaments of the succeeding year. All of these discussions went on for years until MONEY entered the picture. The MONEY catalyst became the alternative presented by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund to create another professional tour -LIV Tour. The LIV Tour could only gain traction and credibility by “buying” players from the PGA Tour. LIV signed up a number of outstanding tour players such as Dustin Johnson, Brooke Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelsen, Bryson DeChambeau and others to dilute the PGA Tour skill set and did this with a budget with a bottomless pit. Recently, LIV signed up Jon Rahm to a huge contract further damaging the strength of the players on the PGA Tour. What does the PGA/LIV tussle have to do with the AT&T Pro-Am?
The AT&T was the grand-daddy of all the Pro-Am PGA events. It was the only PGA event where professionals and amateurs held almost equal status, with the amateurs playing a minimum of 3 rounds on 3 golf courses with an opportunity to play a final round (after a third round cut) while the professionals were chasing the championship. The event featured celebrities from all walks of the society including actors, entertainers, musicians, sports, politics and business. The original intent of the event from founder entertainer, Bing Crosby, would feature celebrities and professional golfers having a good time and a spirited competition. Highlights of Bill Murray’s antics, Larry the Cable Guy, Tom Brady, Alice Cooper brought out the casual or even the non-golf fan who would just show up to watch the celebrities. The event had an aura of fun and informality.
In the last few years, the culture of golf and the event began to change. Touring pros didn’t like playing 6 hour rounds with amateur players. The pros also didn’t like the logistics of having to play 3 different courses on 3 days. The weather could also be iffy in Northern California during the first week of February as well. The impact of all of these factors resulted in significant dilution of the quality of the field as many of the games top names decided to skip the event. In 2023, the event seemed to hit a new low as only 3 of the top 20 players on tour showed up in Pebble Beach. The PGA/LIV controversy led the PGA to take a look at how it organizes events and decided to upgrade the AT&T to a designated event. The term “designated event” means that the top players will be in the field by virtue of their performance in 2023 events and some other factors. The prize money has been more than doubled to $20 million up from the 2022 level of $9 million. There is also no professional cut and the Pro-Am is essentially “no more.” Selected amateurs will play two rounds so Bill Murray will not be around for the weekend. Actually Bill Murray will probably not be in the field. The tournament will lose most of the fans who would come just to see their favorite celebrity playing. The event will deprive some local pros an opportunity to compete for a week on the PGA Tour.
Professional golf now is now about MONEY and not the game of golf. The PGA felt that it had to act and provide bigger purses to compete with the virtual unlimited financial resources of Saudi Arabian coffers, which seems bent on taking over the game of professional golf. It is no merit, in my view, to question the behavior and motivation of the players that defect from the PGA Tour to LIV. They believe they are providing for the future of their family and maximize their earning power. What’s lost is their reputation and standing in the game of golf–no one can tell you how Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia performed in 2023 and what they are competing for other than–MORE MONEY. I find the LIV team tournament format confusing and unwatchable with a scoreboard that looks like the cockpit of a Boeing jetliner. Professional golf has lost the plot with the game. The result for the AT&T is the end of a long run of professionalism, competition combined with camaraderie and fun. The legacy of Bing Crosby is secure but the future of the event has been changed perhaps forever.
I would rather be playing than watching as the almighty dollar continues to dominate professional golf.