Golf

10 Tuesday takes: Rory’s ‘Churn’, JT's TV time and golf vs. tennis

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Johnson Wagner discusses course strategy with Thomas during a mid-day TV appearance at the Players Championship.
Golf Channel
Hello, folks. Below is an assortment of takes, seared to a nice temperature for your consumption. Some are opinions I steadfastly believe. Others are simply notices that should inform you of what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike. Anyway, there are 10 of them. They’re all mine, but now they’re yours, too!
Thus far in 2024, there really hasn’t been anything quite as riveting as the McIlroy-Hovland-Spieth ruling from the first round of the Players. But it was pretty standard issue right until the moment Spieth spoke up. Spieth claims he overheard Hovland and came in to protect McIlroy from doing something incorrectly. (And in fairness, it was only a couple months ago that Rors made a brutal Rules error.) But the way Spieth did it completely undercut his point. 
“Yeah, everyone that I’m hearing that had eyes on it,” Spieth said as he charged across the fairway, “which again is not what matters — is saying they’re 100 percent certain it landed below the line.”
No one was really sure about McIlroy’s ball, but Spieth was correct about one thing: the opinions of people watching with their naked eyes from across the fairway DO. NOT. MATTER. So why are they being mentioned?
Does that ruling become the story of the day if Spieth quietly walks over to McIlroy instead of shouting from the fairway? Does Harry Diamond speak up in such an antagonistic way, defending his man? Am I still thinking about this all, days later, if Spieth goes about it differently? Probably not. Spieth and Hovland didn’t help themselves (or any of us!) when they both skipped media availability following the round. 
Golf fans think they know Wyndham Clark now. They think he might be a big-game hunter, taking down majors and playing his best golf in Signature Events. We certainly know him pretty well via Netflix’s Full Swing now. But nothing about his resurgent form — nor the entirety of his Full Swing episode — explains what was going on this fall. 
Clark made his debut Ryder Cup appearance amid some contentious press about comments me made re: Rory McIlroy. If only that was his biggest concern. When he needed it most at Marco Simone — from the center of the 18th fairway on Thursday and Friday afternoons — EXTREMELY ABOVE AVERAGE ball-striker Clark fanned both approaches out to the right … and he was not right for a number of months. Clark proceeded to log 10 consecutive negative strokes-gained rounds, something you never typically see from elite players. It was a stunning loss of form, which may have been related to his worldly schedule — Spain and Japan and the Bahamas — during pro golf’s first real offseason, but it was puzzling nonetheless. He dropped outside the DataGolf top 40 around the turn of the new year, only to immediately rise again since careering it in the third round at Pebble. I don’t know if there’s something there, but it feels like nobody noticed it. 
It’s been a foolish dream of many to wonder what it would be like to have a 12-handicap hack play a Tour-level tournament setup on the same day as the pros do, serving as evidence for anyone and everyone to the truly fantastic abilities of the best players in the world. That’s just never going to happen. Appreciate what you get in the tiny moments where D.J. Khaled gets his cuts in on a short par-3 at The Match vol. 24.
Thankfully, PGA Tour Live is at least trying to get closer to that idea. The numbers you see in the screenshot below come straight from Arccos, a stat-tracking and strategy improvement company, which owns an incredible dataset from Golfers Like Us. On one hand, it’s a good reminder that, you and me, we’re only making one out of 20 tries from 15 to 20 feet. On the other hand, it feels good that the pros are only making two to three more than us. A win-win addition to our television screens. Next up: reminding amateurs how inefficient they are at chipping.
Now a broadcast that reminds you how bad you are at golf pic.twitter.com/zrCj0mcTt0
In the six months before Patrick Reed signed a contract with LIV Golf, he was playing very average golf. Something akin to 50th- or 60th-best in the world. In the last six months, Reed has been performing much the same, about 50th- or 60th-best in the world. 
Only when he made that initial jump to LIV — back in June of 2022 — Reed owned exemptions into every event in the world he wished to play. And now, he’s currently slated to miss the PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship. The man hasn’t missed a major since the 2013 PGA Championship — that’s 39 in a row — and barring any great performance at the Masters, is set to be on the outside looking in. Which is likely why he was playing the International Series Macau last week, finishing solo fourth and jumping his world ranking to No. 100.
One year, you’re locked in to every event around the world. Soon enough, you’re grinding out final rounds in an autonomous region of China, playing an Asian Tour event and getting a 59 dropped on you by someone named John Catlin. Live comes at ya fast.
The good folks at Bunkered got ahold of Jimmy Walker in the last week and let him unleash a bunch of thoughts on the current state of things in pro golf. (As an aside, I’d like to stop writing about the “state of things” in pro golf.) You can check it all out here. Walker is mad his 124th-place finish in 2023 didn’t guarantee him full status this season. He thinks golf absolutely needs to have an offseason and “starve” the sport’s audience. But he also doesn’t believe the Tour itself is maximizing playing opportunities for professionals.
So I ask, which is it, Jimmy? That the tour needs to have fewer tournaments in the fall, or that the Tour needs to maximize playing opportunities? You can’t really stand with a foot on both sides of that fence. This all goes without saying that Walker received a bunch of playing opportunities in 2023 because players left for LIV Golf, thanks to an exemption rule enacted by the Tour. So, in a way, the structures that are forcing change within the game to slim down some of the playing opportunities are the same entities that have helped give him an extra chance. He nearly got everything he wanted with that opportunity, but fell just shy. That just … is what it is.
I wonder if it’s possible to have a week where we only ask Rory McIlroy questions about his golf, exclusively his golf, and nothing more. He seems to be (and maybe wants to be) stuck in this vicious cycle where one quote from last week follows him to this week, which incites a new quote that will follow him into the next week. There are new local reporters at every tournament he goes to ready to pounce on the potential for headlines about whatever he says next. (There isn’t another golfer on the planet dealing with this. And again, is it McIlroy’s own creation? Perhaps!) But last week, that quote had to do with the idea of churn, and how much of it McIlroy wants to see at the highest level of pro golf.
“I think the more churn the better,” McIlroy said at the Players. “This is supposed to be the most competitive golf tour in the world, and I think you should need to have to prove yourself over and over again.”
I wrote about a bit of what he means here, but the more I’ve thought about it, it becomes incredibly obvious why he’s allowed to be so publicly in favor of such churn: because never once in his life would he be in danger of being on the outside looking in. And he’s one of maybe a couple all-timers from this era who would never have to worry about proving themselves. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are not necessarily on the list! McIlroy recognizes this is an unpopular opinion because he knows how abnormal his skillset and consistency has been. Ten out of 15 seasons finishing in the top 15. Never once outside the top 60. He’s a consistency freak! Which makes it easy for him to have that opinion. He just needs to know that might engender some angst among his colleagues.
Every year at the Players, the PGA Tour comms team corrals a circle of first-time competitors at the Players for an hour of availability. Media members mill about while the Tour pros sit comfortably on director’s chairs. I cannot stress this enough: this is a lovely way of getting less-heralded players to share some face time with media, the very people who disseminate their stories to the public. It’s becomes a place where fun content can be made, walls are broken down, personalities can shine …
So can we do it with non first-timers?
This orchestration reminded my of my days covering the Wisconsin men’s basketball team on their road to the Final Four in 2014 (shoutout Frank Kaminsky). You could walk around the locker room and ask any willing player any question for about a 15-minute period — precisely the kind of access that is casual enough to benefit storytelling and coverage.
It feels worth noting that our reigning champ, Scottie Scheffler, has said he doesn’t really enjoy the press conference setting, where 4k cameras and studio quality microphones capture his every thought, movement, smirk, etc. Something more casual works for him, and it might work for others, too. 
Justin Thomas was rather annoyed with missing the cut last week at the Players. A week like that comes and goes, and it feels like a lost cause. But there was something Thomas was did that made the week a net positive for his fans nonetheless — leaning in to TV appearances.
I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of what the Tour asks players to do, or what kind of appearance box this checks for Thomas with PGA Tour communications, but Thomas not only did a stand-up interview with Mike Tirico on the 17th tee (even hitting a shot) that appeared on NBC’s Today Show, he also did a walk-and-talk with Johnson Wagner during a practice round. It may not be much, but that involvement from one of the game’s biggest names is exactly what elevates a tournament to higher places. It’s hard to quantify, but more people connected with the tournament — if even in fleeting fashion — via this willingness. Net wins are net wins, even if they come during missed cuts.
It was Thomas, you may recall, was the first (and only?) pro to carry the “Bag cam” in his bag during last year’s Valspar Championship. For those you watched, it very much did not work as a broadcast addition. But the point is, they tried! Thomas was open to it, just as he was open to wearing a mic during the second round of the Masters last year. The more players lean in to ideas like this, the more likable the TV product becomes and the more fans feel involved with the sport they’re paying attention to.
I don’t know that this dish even exists, but hopefully something similar to it does, because Masters champions are getting involved with their Champions Dinner menus like never before. Scottie Scheffler brought us sliders “Scottie style” in 2023, which is served with french fries on top of the burger patty. This year, Jon Rahm’s delectable menu includes “Mama Rahm’s lentil stew” which is probably going to be the most underrated part of the dinner. All this tells us is that the stage is set for Papa Åberg’s Pickled Herring, or Father Schauffele’s beer-braised sausage, or the Fleetwood Family Scouse as an appetizer.
Thoughts on Jon Rahm’s Champions Dinner menu? 👀 pic.twitter.com/dK9bKWdAC6
Golf is just one Tiger Woods away from being tennis. Even if this phrase seems to have been first coined by a Golf Twitter user under the pseudonym Antifaldo, I think it rings quite true. It was in the early-early Woods era that sports marketers were already concerned that money was moving toward Woods’ country club sport as a result of being taken from Pete Sampras’ country club sport. (Were they right? Probably). But a quiet trend these days is golf and tennis seem more linked than ever, in part because they’re competing.
The major global tennis circuits are either already enjoying a billion-dollar investment with the Saudi PIF, or are set to enjoy it a bunch over the next few years. Golf, as you know, is hoping to match that investment, and then some. Netflix has shuttered its tennis docu-series, Break Point, which I greatly enjoyed (even if I’m seemingly in the minority). Will Full Swing get its Season 3 green light? Probably. That would be a victory over tennis, in a way. Netflix made its debut into live sports with The Netflix Cup, a goofier-than-necessary golf match, and followed it up with The Netflix Slam, a mega-wattage match between Rafa Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz. It certainly makes you wonder what might arrive next. Team Tennis? Equal pay at the Men’s and Women’s (golf) U.S. Opens? A season-ending (or beginning?) golf event in Saudi Arabia?
Congratulations for reaching the end of this column of ideas. If you have a take you’d like to pass along, or if you agree or disagree with any of the above, shoot me a note at sean.zak@golf.com

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.
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