RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links



Voices

Is the PGA Tour in a slump, or is this a new reality?

February 19, 2024
2001376382

Christian Petersen

The West Coast Swing is ostensibly the PGA Tour at its best, opening its year with good fields at entertaining venues while the rest of the country is buried in the malaise of winter. But as the circuit heads east, it's fair to wonder if the tour began its 2024 season in a slump or if what was seen was a harbinger of what is to come.

That may seem like a cruel assessment of the past seven weeks, particularly to the tournaments in this stretch and the players who won them. In themselves, these weeks had their moments: redemption stories (of varying degrees) in Chris Kirk and Grayson Murray; breakthroughs in Nick Dunlap and Matthieu Pavon; Wyndham Clark cementing his big-game status; a playoff in Phoenix; Hideki Matsuyama’s sensational closing 62 to win Riviera. Collectively, however, the first two months have lacked juice, and a depleted field at this week’s Mexico Open at a resort course does not promise to instill much-needed verve.

Those thinking these past seven weeks were an aberration have evidence in their corner, starting with the weather. The climate is historically problematic at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, yet what Mother Nature threw at the tour at this month’s Clambake was downright biblical. Scottsdale, an area which receives roughly seven inches of rain a year, was hit with more than an inch and a half during the WM Phoenix Open. The flu knocked out Tiger Woods from his own event after 24 holes; Jordan Spieth, arguably the second-biggest draw on tour after Woods, was disqualified at Riviera for signing an incorrect scorecard … a flub that might be correlated to Woods' illness. Most of the major headlines from this stretch were other oddities, and some were self-inflicted. The Phoenix Open has long walked a tightrope with fan behavior, only to fall off in public fashion that could have lasting repercussions. After his 54-hole win at Pebble, Clark acknowledged he had been in talks with LIV Golf, adding he eventually chose legacy while prefacing his loyalty to the tour was only good until the end of this year. The tour announced it had agreed to private equity investment from Strategic Sports Group, a deal that is seemingly consequential … yet a deal that featured no press conference or media appearance from tour leadership, the agreement revealed only in a release with scant details, leaving fans to wonder what exactly this means for them.

Conversely, the bigger, overarching worry from the past seven weeks is what fans didn’t see. Rory McIlroy was a tour de force in the Middle East but has been so-so in his two tour starts. Reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland has struggled. Max Homa usually feasts on the West Coast but hasn’t posted a top-10 in five appearances. Collin Morikawa hasn’t done much, and an expected Sunday battle between Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay at Riv turned out to be a dud. Then there is Scottie Scheffler. The two-time PGA Tour Player of the Year is posting the best ball-striking numbers since in-his-prime Tiger … but that performance has been weighed down by his continued putting woes, which have prolonged to the point they can no longer be classified as a funk. Scheffler knows it too; this weekend alone featured images of Scheffler tossing his putter like a baton after missing a putt and dropping to his knees after another, the normally stoic Texan unable to hide his indignation at his flatstick’s betrayal. The putter has single-handedly kept him from a generationally-great 18-month stretch, and as golf has sadistically proved over and over the present (in this case, Scheffler’s tee-to-green game) is no guarantee of the future.

Seven weeks is a small sample size. In that same breath, the tour is nearing the quarter mark of the season, and the very stars tasked with keeping the lights on have been dimmed. Which brings us to LIV Golf. For the first two years of LIV’s existence there has been a general belief from tour headquarters that the tour’s depth was its hydra: When one star leaves he would be replaced by another. Generally, that held true. But Jon Rahm's defection seemed to be a tipping point of sorts. LIV has now taken both a significant portion of the tour’s frontline firepower (Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Cam Smith) along with a sizable bite out of the second- and third-tier rank. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that five of the tour’s seven winners in 2024 were outside the top 50 in World Ranking … but maybe it’s not. That Rahm won three times during this stretch last season only exaggerates the perceived power void.

This sentiment may seem demeaning to this year’s winners, and one of the tour’s alleged assets in golf’s civil war was maintaining the ideal of meritocracy compared to the closed and limited fields of LIV. The problem, however, is that while most sports love underdogs, golf often lives in fear of them. Once in a while, sure, crowds want to pull for the little guy. Every week, not so much. There’s a reason the tour implemented the Player Impact Program: this is a universe that revolves around stars. Worse, three of the seven tournaments (Sentry, AT&T Pebble, Genesis Invitational) have been signature events and six of the next eight are merely “full field” competitions. It doesn’t mean that what’s to come will be anticlimactic; it’s just this was the stretch that was supposed to deliver. This was supposed to be what mattered.

Again, it’s only been seven weeks, and there have been bright spots. Dunlap’s win was a revelation. Justin Thomas is looking like his old self. Spieth and Schauffele have played well. Weather has been bad all over the country, and as for the aforementioned oddities … well, it’s golf, oddities happen. But this slate is supposed to provide us with storylines for the rest of the year, and as the tour leaves California, the biggest one to watch is what product the tour is ultimately presenting.