Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 8, 2018

The Silly Season, Or Just Plain Stupid?

Once upon a good long time ago, the phrase “golf’s silly season” referred to the months in late autumn and early winter, after the Tour Championship had been played and before the PGA Tour’s new season began with the Tournament of Champions in January. That was the time for a variety of exhibitions and made for TV events, all of which enriched their participants and none of which had any impact on the annual money list, any player’s Tour card, or, once it began in 1986, the Official World Golf Rankings. Ah, the good old days of the Skins Game.

The world of professional golf is very different now. The PGA Tour has a year-round schedule. It begins in early October and, with but a few weeks off for the holidays, runs right up until the following September, with just enough room to squeeze in the Ryder or Presidents Cup, depending on the year. But as the last two weeks have shown golf fans, and as this weekend will reaffirm, that doesn’t mean the sport doesn’t still have a silly season. Those who tune in faithfully to coverage of the weekly tournaments know that the Tour is currently right in the middle of this year’s.

It began two weeks ago, at the Farmers Insurance Open, a venerable PGA Tour stop despite its commercial name honoring the event’s current prime sponsor, having been played in San Diego for more than six decades and at iconic Torrey Pines for a half century. But this year the setting at first seemed too much for the best players in the field at the tournament’s most crucial time. The four golfers at the top of the leader board managed to play the back nine in a collective 6-over par in the final round. Jason Day and Alex Noren both toured the back in 2-over 38, with nary a birdie between them, while Ryan Palmer and J.B. Holmes were each but a single shot better.

Then as the sun prepared to kiss the Pacific Ocean on the western horizon, the play went from lackluster to non-existent thanks to Holmes. A journeyman who has won four times over a twelve-year Tour career, Holmes came to the closing hole two shots out of the lead. The 18th is a 570-yard par-5 with a green guarded by a large pond. It’s reachable in two by a long hitter like Holmes, assuming a well-placed drive. But he failed to execute the necessary tee shot, instead sending his ball into the right rough. Holmes said later that from his lie, with the ball above his feet, he wasn’t certain that a 5-wood was enough club but worried that a 3-wood might fly over the green.

Needing an eagle to tie for the lead, Holmes hesitated, vacillated, dithered and dilly-dallied. As the first to hit his approach Holmes was theoretically allowed sixty seconds to make up his mind and hit a shot. Instead he stood with his caddie for an astonishing four minutes and ten seconds, debating what to do. While he did so playing partners Noren and Palmer were both forced to cool their heels, while the crowds lining the 18th fairway got hotter and hotter, with many spectators eventually booing Holmes.

After all that the new king of slow play decided to lay up with an iron, and did so badly, hooking a shot into the left rough. The drawn out anticlimax brought more jeers from the galleries, on a day in which the final groups needed almost six hours to cover the eighteen holes. The end result was a three-way playoff between Day, Noren, and Palmer. After the latter was eliminated on the first hole of sudden death, Day and Noren played on in the quickly fading light. The playoff eventually ran to six holes, but the last one couldn’t be played until Monday morning, thanks to the tortuous place of play throughout the final round, capped by Holmes’s self-centered performance on the 18th.

Worst of all for anyone concerned about growing the game was that Holmes was unrepentant. After being excoriated on social media by several fellow pros, Holmes defended himself and was essentially given a pass by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who has said he doesn’t see slow play as a problem on Tour. Does he really think six hour rounds will attract new fans to the game?

From San Diego the touring pros made the short trip to Scottsdale and the Waste Management Phoenix Open, better known as the official three-ring circus on each year’s Tour calendar. Since moving to the TPC Scottsdale course in 1987, the Phoenix Open has attracted bigger and bigger crowds. The sprawling property has plenty of room for the infrastructure to support huge numbers of fans. Hundreds of thousands of tickets sold each year have raised millions of dollars for charity, thanks to the hard work and promotion by the Thunderbirds, the local civic group that organizes the tournament. This year more than 700,000 spectators attended, with Saturday’s crowd in excess of 212,000.

While the efforts to bring many thousands of people with relatively little interest in golf out to the course are certainly well-meaning, to keep them entertained the tournament has always promoted a party atmosphere. The center of the festivities has long been the par-3 16th hole, which has gone from being lined along one side by grandstands to being fully surrounded by stands – a veritable golf stadium that seems to grow by several rows of seats every year. Now 20,000 or so spend the day at the 16th, while the beer flows freely. A packed and raucous crowd, tightly packed into a confined space, inebriated and sitting in the desert sun. What could possibly go wrong?

The unsurprising answer is, quite a bit. At one time the crowd at the 16th would cheer wildly for good shots and issue a collective groan for poor ones. The latter turned to outright booing sometime in the past few years, while to be worthy of applause tee shots had to be not merely good but great. This year it seems, a line was crossed. Numerous golfers complained that the taunts leveled at them on the 16th were both profane and personal. But when the Phoenix Open’s organizers don’t merely tolerate but actively encourage a frat party atmosphere, one shouldn’t be surprised when the result is Animal House.  Gary Woodland’s scintillating final round, and his playoff win over Chez Reavie, were afterthoughts.

From Arizona the Tour has returned to California for this week’s stop, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Every weekly event stages a Pro-Am during the early week practice rounds. They’re great fundraisers, as corporate bigwigs gladly pay thousands of dollars to play eighteen with a member of the PGA Tour. But the tournament at Pebble Beach is unique. Begun more than eighty years ago by the entertainer Bing Crosby, the event has always featured amateurs and their professional partners competing not in a single round, but right through the weekend.

Where this otherwise fine idea goes astray is in the television coverage by CBS. This weekend the network will devote an inordinate amount of air time to the hacks, shanks, and yips of any number of high handicap amateurs. Included in the coverage will of course be any amateur who happens to star in a show on CBS. The network’s coverage of this tournament usually feels like one long commercial, and this weekend is unlikely to be different.

The last two weeks should have been about redemptive wins by Day and Woodland.  Instead they’ve been about glacial play and drunken rowdiness, and the weekend ahead promises little relief.  For devoted golf fans, it’s all almost too much to bear. Most sports fans pay little attention to golf until the Masters comes around in April. This year’s nonsense is making them look smart.


  1. …A packed and raucous crowd, tightly packed into a confined space, inebriated and sitting in the desert sun. What could possibly go wrong?

    I love it, Mike. Golf is silly all year to me, but I’m in the minority & I love it.
    Thanks for the laughs, this is a good post.

    • Thanks Allan. As an avid golf fan I haven’t known whether to laugh or cry the past few weeks!


      Michael Cornelius

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