Monday, May 27, 2024

The magic of the Masters can’t overshadow fact that men’s golf is in some trouble

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The game of men’s golf marks time from one year to the next when Augusta National opens its doors for another Masters. This is a revered tournament, the most famous on earth, but it’s also something more. 

It’s a measuring stick of sorts, an annual gathering to tell us how the men’s game is doing. How is Tiger holding up? Is Rory ready to finally win here? And, perhaps most important, where does the game stand in these fraught times, with the sport increasingly and devastatingly sectioning itself off from the people it needs the most, its fans, all because the game’s most compelling matchup these days is PGA Tour vs. LIV?

By any measure, as the Masters begins Thursday morning, golf is a sport in some significant trouble. The glory days of Tiger are long since over, replaced by little more than hope: hope that he can make the cut here this week, hope that the people who love and miss him can will him into the weekend and up the leaderboard. 

TV ratings are down (the Players’ Championship dropped 15 percent from last year to this), and while it’s convenient to say that’s happening in all sports, we know that’s not true because we just lived through the past magical month following a certain player in March Madness. 

The players themselves are concerned, even though some of the biggest worry-warts are the ones who bolted their multi-million-dollar lives for LIV’s Saudi blood money. 

Bryson DeChambeau for example. 

“It’s great to have the majors where we come together, but we want to be competing, at least I want to be competing every week, with all of the best players in the world for sure,” said the man who walked away from playing against the best players in the world to go to a no-cut, exhibition style shell of a golf tour. “And it needs to happen fast. It’s not a two-year thing. Like it needs to happen quicker rather than later just for the good of the sport. Too many people are losing interest.”

There’s a sentence, as problematic as it is honest, that you don’t see very often from a pro athlete in a big-time sport: “Too many people are losing interest.” Of course they are losing interest precisely because of the actions of people like the guy who uttered the quote. 

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, watching the game he loves descend into what it never was supposed to become, is also understandably concerned. 

“I will acknowledge that, if you look at the data this year, golf viewers are down (on) linear television while other sports, some other sports are up,” he said Wednesday. “So you can draw your own conclusions. Certainly the fact that the best players in the world are not convening very often is not helpful. Whether or not there’s a direct causal effect, I don’t know. But I think that it would be a lot better if they were together more often.”

One of the allures of golf has always been how players have conducted themselves. Golfers call penalties on themselves. That’s unique and notable, something that requires at least an element of honesty.

Keep that in mind as we consider defending Masters champion Jon Rahm. Back in 2022, as golf’s civil war was exploding, Rahm was quite adamant that he had absolutely no interest in joining LIV.

“Money is great, but when (his wife) Kelley and I started talking about it, and we’re like, Will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million? No, it will not change one bit,” Rahm said. 

“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

In December 2023, he left the PGA Tour for LIV. 

Rahm will get his applause and cheers here this week, but he will never be able to recapture his honor. It’s so fitting in golf’s troubled times: the man who lied and sold out for money is the reigning Masters champion.

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