Cut Line: Jostling at the top in the unstable world of golf

Cut Line: Jostling at the top in the unstable world of golf

In this week’s edition, we celebrate another inspiring comeback on the PGA Tour, question the timing of some high-profile executive moves and acknowledge math is hard for everyone.

Made Cut

Comebacks. Less than a week after celebrating Chris Kirk’s second victory since returning to the PGA Tour following his high-profile bout with alcoholism, the golf world gets another redemption story.

Gary Woodland is making his first start this week since having surgery to remove a brain lesion. Woodland, 39, was diagnosed with a brain lesion last year and had surgery on Sept. 18 that removed the “majority of the tumor.” The Sony Open is his first start since last season’s Wyndham Championship.

“The big [symptom] was I just wasn't feeling like myself. It was a lot of jolting, especially in the middle of the night. Shaking; hands were really tremoring,” Woodland said this week when asked what prompted him to see a doctor. “A lot of fear. That was the one that scared me the most, was I'm a very optimistic person, I believe good things will happen. I was very fear-driven every day, mostly around death.”

Kirk was given the Tour’s Courage Award last fall for his comeback, and following Woodland’s return this week officials should pencil him in as the next recipient.

Succession. No, not the non-stop cringe of the HBO drama. This succession nod goes to Guy Kinnings, who was named DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley’s replacement this week.

While Pelley’s exit does create its share of questions (see MDF item below), the decision to replace the European circuit’s chief executive with Kinnings does provide an encouraging amount of continuity.

Kinnings joined the European tour in 2018 after a long career as a player manager with IMG’s Golf Division. He was the European tour’s chief commercial officer and oversaw last year’s Ryder Cup in Rome. He also comes with enough credibility from the players to ease the transition; although, the circuit’s ongoing negotiations with the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will certainly present an elevated learning curve for Kinnings, who takes over for Pelley on April 2.

Given the uncertainty in professional golf, it’s impossible to say whether Kinnings is the right man for the job, but he was certainly in the right place.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Moving on. The changing seasons of a professional career know no boundaries and knowing when it’s “time” (see Saban, Nick) is an art that few master. However, when your job is front-man in a three-headed battle royale, there is something to be said for timing.

The concept applies to a pair of out-of-nowhere announcements this week that R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and DP World Tour CEO Pelley were both leaving their jobs. Both exits were surprising, given the unprecedented change the game faces.

First Slumbers, who announced he was stepping down by the end of the year, a little over a month after the R&A and USGA announced plans to roll back the golf ball starting in 2028. While a rollback seemed inevitable, the rule maker’s decision to include recreational players in the new rule, albeit starting in 2030, has seen pushback on many fronts.

But Pelley’s exit is much more profound, given the ongoing negotiations between the European tour, PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s PIF – the owner of LIV Golf – to create a new, for-profit model with all three tours under one umbrella.

The press release issued by the DP World Tour points out many of Pelley’s accomplishments, including the expansion of the European circuit’s strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, but it doesn’t mention how his exit might impact the ongoing negotiations.

For his part, Pelley spoke to reporters on Friday in Dubai and said he is "optimistic" a deal will be reached before he leaves for his “dream job” as the president and CEO of the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

“We hope to come to a conclusion, and moving that forward is something that is going to be my primary focus over the next three months,” Pelley told reporters. “I’m definitely staying until April, and I’ve told the PGA Tour and I’ve told representatives from PIF that that is my priority. I still believe it. That’s the reason we entered into the framework agreement, and we need to move it forward.”

Big picture. Since stepping down from his position as a player director on the PGA Tour’s policy board, Rory McIlroy hasn’t exactly hidden himself away from the politics of pro golf. In fact, he seems to have become an even louder voice for change.

To be fair, McIlroy was simply answering questions at this week’s DP World Tour event in Dubai, but it’s the depth of his answers that suggest the Northern Irishman is still keenly involved with golf's political happenings.

“I think everyone needs to start thinking more globally around it, but globally in a holistic way, not really like [the European] tour, that tour and another tour,” McIlroy told Golf Digest. “What is the best structure for elite professional golf, the top 70 to 100 guys in the world and what would that look like, especially if the game is going to look different going forward and everything is on the table. I just think it’s worth having that conversation.”

McIlroy’s “dream scenario” of a global golf tour is neither new nor controversial, but the reason his thoughts on the game’s future land him in the MDF portion of this week’s edition is because it’s clear he should still be in the board room driving the agenda and not on the outside hoping for the best outcome.

Missed Cut

Math. There’s nothing overly egregious about the calculating error that prompted the Official World Golf Ranking to adjust this week’s ranking, but there is some genius comic timing that the first update under the new rules didn’t add up.

The problem, as first pointed out by social media ranking guru Nosferatu (@VC606), was Chris Kirk’s victory at the year-opener in Maui should have come with a “multi-win benefit” for players who win multiple times in a 52-week ranking window. On Friday, officials with the ranking corrected the error and Kirk jumped from 25th to 21st.

The “multi-win benefit” awards players with multiple victories in a 52-week window a 70-percent points bonus (with a cap of four ranking points) and was created “to more quickly identify emerging talent,” according to the ranking’s announcement of the change last month.

Again, mistakes happen and math is hard, but there is always a measure of twisted joy when the teacher gets the answer wrong.