How the Tournament of Champions can become a marquee event again
The PGA Tour got lucky in Hawaii this past weekend. The reason was Dustin Johnson. The No. 1 player in the world put on a bravura performance, especially on Sunday in difficult conditions, to win a once-proud event that’s now called the Sentry Tournament of Champions by eight strokes over Jon Rahm.
Johnson simply overpowered Kapalua’s Plantation Course in Maui the last two days, shooting 66-65 for a four-round 268 total—24 under par because the golf course has five par 5s and, thus, is a par 73.
Johnson’s Sunday 65 was the low score for the day on a rainy, windy afternoon when only nine of 34 players broke 70. His ability to do things that no one else in the world can do was never more evident than on the 420-yard, par-4 12th hole, when he lashed a driver that kept rolling down the hill leading to the green before finally stopping inches short of the hole.
Never up, never in.
As good as Johnson was, it’s worth remembering how Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore seemingly designed the Plantation Course with Johnson—and resort hackers playing the white tees—in mind. The fairways are football-field wide, the par 5s play like par 4s for any long hitter (and some of the par 4s like par 3s). The picturesque stretch from the ninth to the 15th holes presents a myriad of birdie—or eagle—opportunities. Johnson also drove the 305-yard par-4 14th hole Sunday as did a number of players in the field.
So what could possibly be wrong with opening the year on a spectacular golf course, with an elite field and vistas that allow people shivering on the mainland to imagine themselves transported to Maui where, even Sunday, amid both wind and rain the temperature was in the 70s all day?
Nothing. And quite a lot.
Stan Badz/PGA Tour
The Tournament of Champions has been around since 1953. Before the Players Championship became the PGA Tour’s favored child, the TOC was the non-major event on the calendar. Jack Nicklaus won it five times; Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gene Littler three times; Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Kite and, now, Johnson, twice. All are either in the Hall of Fame or will be once they turn 50.
But things haven’t gone all that well for the event since 1999, when the tour moved it to Maui after a 30-year run at LaCosta Resort outside of San Diego. The new venue was designed to do several things: One was to encourage players to turn an event that came right after the holidays into a trip to Maui with their families, enjoy the week and play four cut-free rounds on a relatively easy, albeit somewhat goofy golf course.
Another was to strengthen the field at the PGA Tour stop in Honolulu the following week. Few top players were going to play LaCosta and then fly to Hawaii for just one week, then back to begin the West Coast swing. The thinking was that once on Maui, many players in the all-winners field would make the short hop to Oahu and stick around to play Waialae.
The strategy worked—to a point. While the biggest names didn’t necessarily stick around, quite a few of the previous year’s winners did. So, Waialae was strengthened. Sony became the title sponsor that same year and, 20 tournaments later, is still the title sponsor.
The Tournament of Champions hasn’t been so lucky. Sentry is the fourth company to hold the title sponsorship since 1999. Even though the tour agreed to take the Tournament of Champions name off the event, Mercedes pulled out in 2009. Since then Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), Hyundai and, now, Sentry have been title sponsors.
The question is this: Why would what should be one of the most important events on tour have trouble holding on to a title sponsor? Why would it not be on network television on the weekend, creating a potential prime-time draw? (NBC went with the Olympic Trials in figure skating, a TV ratings gold mine.)
What’s more, even though the tour spent the week trumpeting the fact that the top five players in the world were entered—for the first time in 14 years—that had more to do with the fact that the only European in the current top five is Rahm, who was eligible for the first time. The more experienced eligible Europeans in the top 10—Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, all passed. Rory McIlroy, currently No. 11 didn’t qualify but has never played.
For most Europeans, even those living in Florida, the trek to Maui isn’t worth it. (It’s that way, too, for some of the more prominent American players, as Mickelson stopped making the trip after the 2001 event and Woods played only up until 2005.)
Stan Badz/PGA Tour
Part of the problem would be just how invested the PGA Tour remains in what was once a crown jewel event. It would seem officials are far more interested in promoting and marketing the Players; the WGC events and the playoffs. As the tour works to revamp the 2018-’19 schedule, moving the playoffs to August to avoid going head-to-head with the NFL was a priority, the TOC remains where it has been since 1986—smack up against the NFL playoffs.
It isn’t as if the tournament’s troubles haven’t been discussed. Several years ago, when Paul Goydos was a member of the Players Advisory Council, most of an evening was spent discussing the TOC. A number of possibilities were raised: Make the exemption for a victory two years (as is the case for the TOC event on the PGA Tour Champions) instead of one. Give major champions a five-year exemption (again, like the seniors). Change the date, the location or both.
Finally, Goydos, exasperated, looked at then-commissioner Tim Finchem and, paraphrasing since this is a family website, said: “Here’s the problem: You’re playing halfway to Japan right after New Year’s on a golf course that’s in a rainforest on the side of a mountain. If you’re a big star WHY would you go?”
Only two holes at Kapalua are actually in a rainforest, but Goydos’s point is well-taken. If the TOC moved back to the mainland, perhaps to LaCosta or even to Florida, the field would include more stars—especially from Europe. But that would undoubtedly hurt the field the next week in Honolulu.
The question then is this: What is the tour’s priority?
The answer: To continue to point out who is on Maui as opposed to who is not. And hope that next year Johnson’s drive on the 12th hole goes about six inches farther.