For a sport steeped in stately tradition and the slow unfolding of tension, golf is looking a whole lot like the hypercharged, quick-cut, meme-heavy NBA these days.
Just as you can keep up with the flow of an entire NBA season without ever watching a full game, you don’t need to know who won last week’s PGA Tour event — or last month’s LIV tournament, for that matter — to ride the sport’s waves of status quo-shattering news.
The latest arrived Tuesday afternoon, as Tiger Woods rolled into Delaware for that most golf-bureaucracy of purposes: a meeting. In a bit of an aesthetic disappointment, Woods showed up not in a long duster, cowboy hat and filled holsters, but in a plaid shirt and loose dad jeans. But the effect remains the same — Woods as the aging gunslinger, saddling up one more time.
And then, like a Ryder Cup I-can-top-that Sunday putt, Patrick Reed filed a $750 million defamation lawsuit against Brandel Chamblee and the Golf Channel. Reed is contending that accusations of cheating from Chamblee — carried by Golf Channel and echoed by fans in galleries across the globe — have caused irreparable damage to Reed’s reputation. Whether that damage is worth about what Woods was reportedly offered to join LIV is a matter for the courts to decide. But if this suit isn’t dismissed out of hand, Reed will come under a scrutiny far more intense than any PGA Tour rules official could generate.
Both of these seismic events, either of which would dominate news for a week in quieter times, are just tweets in the cacophony that’s now reverberating across the sport. LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed upstart league, clearly isn’t going away anytime soon. LIV, which built a foundation on past-their-prime stars in their 40s, is now attracting younger and more highly ranked players.
The PGA Tour, meanwhile, is going to the mattresses to fight off a challenge that began as a 19th-hole did-you-hear joke but quickly grew into an existential threat. The Tour is trying to keep current players happy, reassure sponsors and increase financial incentives while stemming the damage from the departure of popular players and preparing for an avalanche of courtroom assaults. Not only that, there’s LIV’s looming contention that the Tour has been “strong-arming,” in the words of a district court judge, various entities, sponsors, vendors and individuals in the golf ecosystem to warn them off aligning with LIV.
Oh, and the Tour’s in the midst of its marquee season-ending championship, too. No big deal.
While the Tour’s continued dominance and LIV’s legitimacy are the key issues at play in this fight, there’s a larger issue: how does any of this benefit golf fans? The people who stand outside the ropes don’t care about antitrust lawsuits or sponsorship contracts or noncompete agreements or broadcast negotiations, and they shouldn’t. Their interest — which is the fundamental reason why golf exists as a professional sport and, say, croquet doesn’t — is in seeing the best players play one another on the finest courses with the highest stakes. Anything that detracts from that — a parallel-league structure, an effort to block LIV players from majors, catering to sponsors rather than the viewing experience — risks reducing golf to niche-sport status like tennis or horse racing, sports that bubble up to the surface only a couple times a year.
There’s precedent for this kind of more-choice-is-worse downfall. A quarter-century ago, the then-owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500, decided to create an upstart racing league, splitting off from the established sanctioning body of open-wheel race teams, tracks and manufacturers then known as Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART.
The new Indy Racing League lacked sponsorship and legitimacy, but it controlled the Indy 500, one of the most famous races in the world. The bureaucratic wrangling that ensued was both numbing and, for racing fans, heartbreaking, but the upshot was this: after a rocky first few years, most race teams eventually jumped from CART to IRL, CART went bankrupt, and IRL absorbed the remnants of CART and became the dominant force in IndyCar racing. The cost: prestige, prominence and popularity as the sport crumbled.
Even though the comparison isn’t exact, the warning message is this: golf isn’t a sacrosanct and inevitable sport. Fans can and will find other ways to entertain themselves between majors. LIV has boundless Saudi money behind it; the PGA Tour has history, tradition and legitimacy. Each needs the other, whether they admit it or not, and each needs the fans even more.
Right now, the sport is wandering around in the rough, trying to find a drive that’s gone wayward. There’s still hope golf can punch out of this mess. But the clock is ticking.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.