Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 12, 2017

Amidst The Nonsense, A New Generation Takes Center Stage

Not so very long ago, the PGA Tour calendar began in early January with the Tournament of Champions, an invitational limited to tournament winners from the previous year. It ended, by the last weekend in October or the first one in November, with the Tour Championship. The remaining two months of the year were given over to made-for-television events like the Skins Game and Three Tours Challenge, which eventually led that period to become known as golf’s “Silly Season.”

The leadership of the Tour was never entirely comfortable with these events, which enriched the game’s best known names while the vast majority of Tour members were limited to doing corporate outings or sitting at home. In time the Tour’s season was extended with multiple events after the Tour Championship. For years these fall events coexisted with the Silly Season. But because these tournaments didn’t offer FedEx Cup points, they attracted weak fields. Finally starting in the fall of 2013 the PGA Tour upgraded the so-called Fall Series events to full status by adopting a schedule that wrapped around the conventional calendar. Now the men’s professional golf schedule starts in October and with only a brief holiday break runs right through to the Tour Championship the following September. The once-popular Skins Game and other such events have mostly been consigned to history.

But while the televised exhibitions that spawned the term may be gone, the PGA Tour’s Silly Season is alive and well. It now runs for just two weeks, from with the Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC Scottsdale the same week as the Super Bowl to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at three Monterey Bay layouts one week later. For participants, spectators and those watching at home, these two Tour stops while still offering 500 FedEx Cup points and a check for $1.2 million or more to the winner seem to be more entertainment spectacles than golf tournaments.

The Phoenix Open, one of the oldest stops on Tour, has evolved into what lead sponsor Waste Management and the Thunderbirds, the local civic society that organizes the tournament, happily dub the “Greatest Show on Grass.” The TPC Scottsdale course was designed to accommodate spectators, and its sprawling layout allows for the sale of many more tickets than at most golf tournaments. This year 655,434 fans passed through the gates during tournament week, breaking the record of 618,000 plus set just last year. In addition to the weekly mark three daily records were also set – Wednesday with just under 78,000, Friday with a handful over 169,000 and Saturday with an astonishing crowd of 204,906.

While there are viewing areas and opportunities all over the course, many of those fans head straight for the final three holes. Huge crowds ring the par-4 18th hole and cram cheek by jowl along the short, drivable par-4 17th. But by far the largest number line up, sometimes for several hours, for the chance to get into the three levels of stadium-like seating that are built to completely surround the par-3 16th. In that enclosed space the sound level can rise every bit as high as at the football game that is played on the same weekend. Players leave the 15th green and walk through a tunnel underneath the stands. They emerge to a wall of sound that scarcely abates when they get ready to hit their tee shots. The well lubricated spectators then quickly respond with even louder cheers or boos depending on the quality of each golfer’s strike to the green.

Almost every weekly stop on the PGA Tour now has a hole that is a faint shadow of the Phoenix Open’s 16th; one spot on the golf course where fans are basically encouraged to sit and imbibe all afternoon, with the expected effect that has on decorum and civility. At the TPC Boston, where the Tour stops for the Dell Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs, it’s the dogleg par-4 17th hole. At the top of the hole’s bend, fans crowd into the Champions Club and enjoy multiple rows of grandstand seating above the fairway where players hit their downhill approach shots to the green. By late afternoon it can get fairly rowdy, but this and other similar venues at other tournaments are all poor cousins to the nonstop frat party atmosphere that pervades not just the 16th but the entire grounds of TPC Scottsdale during the Phoenix Open.

If the first stop in golf’s new Silly Season is distinguished by its spectators, the second is set apart by its participants. The entertainer Bing Crosby first hosted an 18 hole pro-am tournament in San Diego in 1937. Crosby’s event grew over time, and relocated up the coast to the Monterey Peninsula after World War II. Crosby was an avid amateur golfer, and he insisted that the pro-am nature of the event be maintained. Except for the majors virtually every stop on all the professional tours features an 18-hole pro-am tournament, foursomes of three amateurs and one professional competing as teams, generally on the Wednesday before official tournament play begins. Local celebrities and businessmen with sufficiently large expense accounts pay well into the four or even five figures for the chance to spend a long afternoon with a touring pro. The pro-am is a significant source of revenue for almost every event on the men’s and women’s professional calendars.

But at those events the pro-am is largely hidden from view, over and done with by the time the official tournament starts. The Pro-Am is the reason for being at Pebble Beach. Before he died in 1977 Crosby had grown his event to where it attracted scores of Hollywood celebrities, and the lead corporate sponsors since then (AT&T since 1986), have brought in assorted captains of industry. The amateur to professional ratio at this tournament is one to one, with all the twosomes playing the first three rounds and the top twenty-five pro-am pairings continuing on to Sunday, competing for a major contribution to their favorite charity.

The problem is that the ability to write a check to play doesn’t carry with a guarantee of having a decent golf game. Every year CBS fills its coverage of the play at Pebble Beach, surely one of the most scenic golf locations in the world, with hack after miserable hack of this well-known actor or that not so well-known business leader. For several years Ray Romano, who happened to star in a CBS comedy, received more airtime than the leaders of the tournament. More recently the Saturday coverage has seemed more like a Bill Murray movie than a golf tournament.

Despite the circus atmosphere at Phoenix and the often circus-like play on display at Pebble Beach, two PGA Tour golf tournaments still somehow manage to unfold. This year Hideki Matsuyama defended his title in the Valley of the Sun. One year after beating a faltering 54-hole leader Rickie Fowler in a playoff, Matsuyama again went to extra holes, outlasting Brandt Snedeker with a birdie on the fourth hole of sudden death. One week later there was considerably less Sunday drama. Jordan Spieth opened up a wide lead with back-to-back rounds of 65 on Friday and Saturday. Sunday he played conservatively and was never threatened, coasting to a four shot victory.

The triumph by the 24-year old Matsuyama is his third PGA Tour title in the last twelve months. He also posted a pair of wins on the Japan Golf Tour last fall. Spieth’s win at the age of 23 years, 7 months and 16 days makes him the second youngest player only to Tiger Woods to claim nine PGA Tour wins. The two results also make seven consecutive PGA Tour events that have been won by a player in his twenties. Matsuyama, Spieth and four other twenty-somethings hold six of the top ten positions in the Official World Golf Rankings. With the 41-year old Woods once again hobbled with a bad back and sidelined indefinitely, it all makes for the clearest evidence yet that for the PGA Tour not just a new season, but an entirely different era has now fully arrived. A new generation is ascendant, and there’s nothing silly about it.

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