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The Sentry

Relax, mules: Kapalua proves the tour remains open to everybody

January 06, 2024
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Chris Kirk plays his shot from the 11th tee during the third round of The Sentry.

Michael Reaves

KAPALUA, Hawaii — There’s a lot of worry in professional golf. Worry about where it’s at, worry about where it’s going and who’s leading it and if it will lose its soul along the way (if it hasn’t already). Alongside these existential, collective anxieties are the independent fears that can be distilled to this: What about me? On the star end of the spectrum a not-insignificant bunch want to be compensated for their loyalty while the rank-and-file fret their tour has become a good ole boys network in which they are on the outs. The financial redress is a matter for a different day, but through three days at The Sentry the leaderboard offers a stern rebuttal to the mules:

There’s room for you in the club. You just have to earn it.

The PGA Tour is changing, but meritocracy remains its currency and Kapalua has served as a diorama for the concept, as Chris Kirk and Akshay Bhatia lead and marquee attractions chase heading into the final day in Maui.

“It sounds dumb and cliche, but you just got to go do your thing,” Kirk said, his 21-under total a shot ahead of Bhatia through 54 holes. “I may go play great tomorrow, and somebody may play a little bit better. There's only so much control you have over that. So, you just kind of stay with your process and just go do it.”

There is Bhatia, the former prodigy who skipped college and turned pro at 17 only to discover what all of us eventually discover, which is adulthood can be unrelenting and mean. Yet after five years on the mini-tours he’s here in Maui, thanks to winning the Barracuda Championship as a temporary member, although an odd rule kept him from the playoffs and grabbing an invite to 2024’s signature events. Bhatia is scheduled to play seven tournaments in a row just to try and make it into the fields at AT&T Pebble Beach and Genesis Invitational.

“I feel like I deserved to have an opportunity to get into the signature events and have a different year, kind of looking at the schedule, right, because it's hard to pick and choose,” Bhatia said after a third-round 66. “So, it's hard because that's not what you want to do; you don't want to play seven weeks in a row starting the year. It's just what I have to do. It's unfortunate how the rules kind of shaped out, but hopefully—I'm sure that will change eventually for guys that are in my position.”

He’s 18 holes away from making that a non-issue, a victory sending him to the rest of the tour’s signature series … to say nothing about a certain tournament in Augusta. Still just 21, with wavy locks that make the local surfers jealous and the type of shotmaking and creativity often lost on youth, he’s the type of up-and-comer this game desperately depends on to instill a shot of vigor.

Bhatia’s also an avatar of sorts. There is concern the signature events could stunt the growth of fledgling talents, keeping them relegated to the full-field tier for too long because the funnel upwards is not big enough. Should the tour not come to an agreement with Saudi’s Public Investment Fund and the civil war continues, do offers from LIV look more attractive to those trying to break through? It’s a fair question, yet a win for Bhatia shows the pathway is bigger than envisioned.

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Akshay Bhatiaplays his shot from the 13th tee during the third round of The Sentry.

Kevin C. Cox

There is Kirk, a model of courage following his battles from alcoholism and depression. He’s enjoyed a nice career with five wins and over $26 million in earnings, but the 38-year-old is not exactly a household name and he hasn’t reached the Tour Championship since 2014. He, along with the likes of Harris English and Brendon Todd this week, are proving this tour’s depth extends far past those of name recognition … and so do the tour’s opulent paychecks. Not far behind them is Ben An. After looking like a possible stud at the 2019 Presidents Cup, the South Korean lost his tour card two years ago. He earned in back in 2022 and followed with a nice 2023, posting four T-6 or better finishes.

“I had somewhere to play,” An said of his demotion. “That's most important. When I got back here, whenever I have a moment out there and get a little disappointed, I just got to look back and say, ‘Hey, this place is great.’ Just like out here, I look at the ocean, I mean, where else could I be, right?”

An is shooting for an interesting distinction this week, looking to become the first player whose inaugural win came at this course. That An is here is a nod that the tour’s changes aren’t leaving the rank-and-file behind. This event used to be called the Tournament of Champions and the field requirements were there in the name, champions only. Yet as a signature event, The Sentry now invites all winners and anyone who finished in the FedEx Cup top 50, which is why An is one of seven players without a career victory in the competition.

Still, golf is a small universe that needs to revolve around and be powered by its stars, and Kapalua boasts a number of players with the necessary gravitational pull. Jordan Spieth is in a tie for third with fellow Ryder Cupper Xander Schauffele. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, Sahith Theegala, Jason Day, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and Matt Fitzpatrick are in shouting distance. Certainly, their names being so prominent is not an accident, and the appeal of limited fields is clear: fewer players, the better the chance of a heavyweight fight.

Golf has long proved that it wants the players that matter to win the events that are supposed to matter the most. So yes, this means catering to stars more than the tour has, yet that doesn’t mean the mules are getting shut out, despite what letters they draft up complaining about their plight. It’s instead a market correction because many have made the case the tour has acquiesced to its middle and lower classes for far too long.

But that doesn’t make the new reality a division of haves and have nots. It’s more of haves and have mores, with a pathway to go from one to the other (and vice versa). Some don’t like it because it’s shaking up the status quo and jeopardizes their station. A lot of others, however, simply call it sports.