FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Life in the PGA Tour bubble and where golf goes from here

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Jay Monahan was wearing a slate-gray suit and a game-day face. He sat behind a slender black microphone and answered questions for nearly 75 minutes. These State of the ____ press conferences are a new and strange form of performance art in golf, and the commissioner was ready for prime time.

A year ago on this occasion, the questions were all (or mostly) LIV-LIV-LIV, and the commissioner’s answers to them were variations on a theme: We’ll fight ’em tooth and nail. Twelve months later, Monahan evidently likes where he is. He’s the commissioner of the PGA Tour. Kurt Kitayama won at Bay Hill last week over Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm. The PGA Tour in full. Why we love theater, sport, golf—and level playing fields.

Cam Smith isn’t here to defend his title at this week’s Players Championship. Smith, an Aussie who lives in greater Jacksonville, took his mullet and his talent to LIV and thereby lost his parking space and his place in this year’s field.

Consider the easy grace with which Monahan handled this question about Smith.

Reporter: “Has it been complicated to navigate the fact that the defending champion, Cam Smith, has gone to LIV Golf but also lives in the area?”

Commissioner: “Listen, Cam Smith had a great performance in 2022. He was a deserved champion. I think as I look to this week and I look at the field that we have here and the strength from top to bottom, I think when we leave here on Sunday night we’re going to crown another deserving champion. To answer your question directly, yes, it’s awkward. But you know, ultimately that’s a decision he made.”

Textbook.

Billy Payne, in his Augusta National years, turned these pre-tournament press conferences, the boss presiding, into in-the-bubble events. Mike Davis at U.S. Opens followed suit, with a style as wonky as Payne’s was Big Picture. Monahan leans to Big Data.

There’s a lot of blah-blah-blah in these sessions. A lot of posturing. If you can get in a question about a person, it can liven things up a bit. I asked Monahan if he thought McIlroy would someday get his own tournament, as Big Jack has the Memorial and Tiger has Genesis and Arnold had Bay Hill.

Monahan paused for a few seconds before saying, “I envision a lot of things. I don’t want to get ahead because I don’t want to put Rory in that spot. But the thing I will say is that his leadership, coupled with his extraordinary play—when you look at all the trend lines, when you look at Jack, when you look at Arnold, when you look at Tiger—that’s an opportunity that would be in [Rory’s] future. But we’re a long way from that. I think he would be the first to tell you he wants to win this week and he wants to win more championships.”

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This is so deep-in-the-bubble—will Rory someday host a PGA Tour event?—as to be almost comical. But I’m in the bubble, and I care. Monahan’s in even deeper. And Rory deeper yet. I could see Rory becoming the host of the old Honda event. He lives a half-hour from PGA National, if PGA Boulevard cooperates. He’s a winner of the PGA Championship, which is owned by the PGA of America, which happens to be the owner of PGA National. He has a warm relationship with Jack Nicklaus, and the tournament raises money for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. You could see it.

These sessions are for nerds. Our job is to water the thing down and disseminate it. Almost all of us sitting in this semi-Arctic media center right now have a fatal flaw. We’re fans. We care too much. We’re easily played.

Earlier in the morning, before Monahan’s press conference, McIlroy made this remarkable statement, and as you read it consider the intelligence behind it and the assuredness of it:

“I’m not going to sit here and lie. I think the emergence of LIV, the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour, has benefited everyone that plays elite professional golf. I think when you’ve been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there’s not a lot of incentive to innovate.

“This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour. What was, I would say, quite an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we’re at in the world in the 21st century with the media landscape and just everything. You know, the PGA Tour isn’t just competing with LIV Golf or other sports. It’s competing with Instagram and TikTok and everything else that’s trying to take eyeballs away from the PGA Tour as a product.”

I didn’t hear Rory say those words (I was off for a jog just then), but when I read them I immediately recognized the inside-the-bubble truth in them. But what also came flooding to mind was the real golf world. A husband and wife (by all appearances), standing outside a strip-mall Publix supermarket, the hub posing for a photo in front of a Players Championship sign, the wife clicking.

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In other words, real-world golf fans who live way outside the golf bubble described above. People who would never use the phrase “elite professional golf.” People who are making the lives of 200 elite professional golfers possible, don’t know who the chairman of Augusta National is and have no idea that Cam Smith went LIV.

I have a strong and sinking feeling that this husband and wife, and millions more like them, are getting lost here. Arnold didn’t cater to that couple. He was that couple. Arnold’s tournament last week, and Katayama’s win, was the best thing to happen on the PGA Tour this year. The 2 he made on 17. The guys he beat. That doesn’t happen in a press conference. That can’t happen at a LIV event. That doesn’t happen in a bubble.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com