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Is There a Doping Issue in the PGA Tour, and Can Sunday Address It?

LOS ANGELES — It was all going to be so perfect. It had stars. It had records. It had one of the most beautiful stages in all of sports in prime time. It was supposed to be the PGA Tour’s big day.

Two weeks ago up in Pebble Beach, Wyndham Clark shot a third-round 60 to break the historic course’s record and take the lead at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The tour couldn’t have drawn up a better Sunday — in theory. It was the off week before the Super Bowl, meaning it practically had the sports calendar to itself. It made the tournament a signature event, meaning one of golf’s most iconic venues had all the best players on tour competing. And suddenly it had the reigning U.S. Open champ — the star of the new season of golf’s Netflix show, “Full Swing” — Clark going into a Sunday duel with the most exciting young player in the sport, Ludvig Åberg.

And it simply never happened.

Instead, extreme weather halted play Sunday with flooding and knocked down trees all over California. The course took so much water over five days that the tournament couldn’t even be finished Monday. Instead of a thrilling, star-studded prime-time finish with everyone talking about PGA Tour golf, the tournament ended with Clark’s Saturday 60 and a whimper.

This has been a strange six weeks for the tour. It’s in the thick of the best part of its calendar before the majors, and there’s an ongoing discussion about whether the PGA Tour season is lacking juice.

But it might just have the Sunday it’s been waiting for. At the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club — which many consider the best non-major on tour — the final round is setting up to get interesting. It has No. 7 player in the world Patrick Cantlay with a two-shot lead. It has his good friend and No. 5 golfer Xander Schauffele in second, tied with rising star Will Zalatoris back in the mix after missing 2023 due to back surgery. Throw in major-winner Jason Day and Ryder Cupper Harris English four back at an elite course, and this could be the Sunday that brings that juice.

About that juice, though.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. It’s not even clear whether it’s true. But something strange has been happening. All six tournaments thus far have been won by a long shot. Literally. They’ve been won by the so-called randoms, the “mules,” as some in the golf world like to refer to them. Chris Kirk. Grayson Murray. Nick Dunlap. Matthieu Pavon. Wyndham Clark. Nick Taylor. All six have entered the tournament at odds of 100-1 or greater. Five of the six entered the week outside of the Official World Golf Ranking top 50. The only winner inside that top 50, Clark, won without a final round.

PGA Tour Winners and pre-tournament starting prices to begin 2024:
Chris Kirk 100/1 Sentry
Grayson Murray 300/1 Sony
Nick Dunlap (a) 400/1 Amex
Matthieu Pavon 150/1 Farmers
Wyndham Clark 100/1 AT&T Pebble
Nick Taylor 100/1 WM Phoenix — Michael Verity (@MichaelVerity) February 12, 2024

It’s not even been bad. Much of the golf has been exciting. One tournament was won by a 20-year-old amateur who staked his claim as the potential future of the sport. Two have involved heartwarming stories of overcoming adversity. Two have gone to a playoff! And last week in Phoenix turned into national news due to the drunken crowds overrunning security.

But, for better or worse, this sport has become a business run on bottom lines. As wars go on between leagues and private equity firms buy in and all we hear about is ratings, Player Impact Programs and stars, there’s that debate over whether these results have been a problem.

To recap: Chris Kirk (100-1) won the signature event The Sentry in a low-scoring battle with stars like Sahith Theegala and Jordan Spieth. It wasn’t the greatest tournament, but Kirk’s win after taking time off to deal with alcoholism and depression was an awesome storyline. A week later was more of the same. Grayson Murray (300-1) also had issues with alcohol and mental health, even facing punishment from the PGA Tour years earlier, and won in a thrilling playoff thanks to two incredible shots in the clutch. These weren’t stars, but most agreed these were really cool finishes.

Then, at the American Express, which is by no means a big tournament expecting huge fanfare, the 20-year-old defending U.S. Amateur champ Nick Dunlap (400-1) took over the golf world by becoming the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson 33 years earlier. This was gold.

Next was 31-year-old Frenchman Matthieu Pavon (150-1) winning at Torrey Pines. Then came the weather mess of Pebble Beach with the tour being robbed of its exciting final round, which also led to more of the golf world watching LIV’s final round in Mexico. And last week at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix — known for its loud, booze-filled atmosphere — it had a thrilling playoff finish between Nick Taylor and 47-year-old Charley Hoffman. And even that was drowned out by the news of the fans breaking containment and weather delays pushing that exciting finish into the first half of the Super Bowl.

The tour couldn’t quite get a win.

A subsection of people turned this into a conversation about LIV departures and a sign the tour wasn’t a great product anymore. This offseason, the PGA Tour lost one major star, Jon Rahm, and another top-20 player, Tyrell Hatton. Losing them stung. No doubt about it. But it’s likely misguided to act like the results of these tournaments were because those two weren’t there. Kirk and Clark beat loaded fields with most of the best players in the world. Even Sony, AmEx and Phoenix all had a good chunk of top-10 and top-20 players. Those players just beat them.

It’s likely more about the personality component. No matter your thoughts on LIV, it’s at least fair to say it took many of the biggest personas from the PGA Tour. Few are bigger than Mickelson. Brooks Koepka is a star. Bryson DeChambeau is a pariah. Dustin Johnson might not be a huge “personality,” but he’s been one of the most talked about golfers for a decade plus. Rahm and Hatton are two hot-blooded, emotional players who bring flair. Cameron Smith is a fishing-loving Aussie with a mullet who was on his way to becoming a bigger star. And everybody has opinions on Patrick Reed.

Even if you want to criticize the quality of some of these players, the truth is LIV has plenty of the golfers who attract the most eyeballs.

And though it’s nobody’s fault, the PGA Tour players playing the best aren’t exactly their eyeball winners. As Garrett Morrison of The Fried Egg pointed out, only one of the six winners ranked in the top 20 of the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program rewarding players for bringing business to the tour (tickets, sponsorships, media consumption and fan engagement). And that one was Clark in a rain-shortened event. If my data collection is right (it might not be?):

– No one from the 2023 PIP top 10 has done better than third place this season
– One player in the PIP top 20 (Wyndham Clark) has won, and it was a rain-shortened event — Garrett Morrison (@garrett_TFE) February 17, 2024

The biggest name brands for the tour right now are Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods. Well, Riviera is just McIlroy’s second event in the United States this year. Spieth is playing solid golf but not quite winning. And Woods is a 48-year-old legend averaging more surgeries per year than top-10s. Then, just to throw gasoline on the market share fire, Woods withdrew from the Genesis, the event he hosts, Friday due to the flu, and Spieth was disqualified Friday for submitting an incorrect scorecard. That’s two huge draws out of the equation.

Its next wave of young stars like Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa aren’t quite at the publicity level of those names, and even they haven’t quite played to their exceptional levels (yet) this season.

None of this is actually a problem, really. The tournaments are still good. Many have included cool storylines. Anybody acting like this is a huge issue is probably trying to make it one. But it is a thing. A thing worth keeping an eye on.

“It’s important, obviously,” Schauffele

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