PGA Tour’s attractive, fun atmosphere highlighted by soulless Saudi Invitational, Super Golf League proposal

Espnmyid

The central theme of the 2015 Pixar movie “Inside Out” is an internal tussle between sadness and joy. These seemingly conflicting emotions that the movie’s protagonist, an 11-year-old girl named Riley, is feeling are constantly at war with one another as Riley’s heart serves as their primary battleground. The anthropomorphic emotions chirp at one another throughout the film until (spoiler alert) they learn they must coexist for Riley to thrive as a human being who feels the full spectrum of emotions.

There are a thousand lessons to be learned from that movie, which masquerades as a children’s film but brings adults to their knees in puddles of their own tears. One of those lessons came to my mind over the weekend as the 2022 WM Phoenix Open played out at TPC Scottsdale.

Admittedly, it is strange to compare a Pixar movie to high-level professional golf events, but stick with me because this mini (?) inflection point the world of golf is experiencing will resonate when it comes to the game’s future.

In a broken world, it becomes much more difficult to identify joy if you completely ignore sadness. The valley of sorrow — no matter what form it takes in our personal lives — creates deep-rooted joy at the top of the mountain in ways we were blissfully unaware existed. A golf example: Do you think Tiger Woods treasures his 1997 Masters win or his 2019 Masters win more?

This leads us to the last three weeks, which have been fraught with chatter about how some of the most famous golfers in the world could split from the PGA Tour to form something called a Super Golf League. This league would ostensibly be financed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which is more or less the financial arm of the Saudi government.

Two weeks ago, a handful of the top players in the world — Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson — played in the Saudi International, the crown jewel of the Asian Tour’s schedule and an event that could feasibly be part of this proposed Super Golf League in the future.

Preposterous financial offers were used as joke-making pinatas on Twitter, but humor doesn’t mitigate the money-making temptation these stars will be forced to weigh.

There’s been plenty of podcast minutes and webpage lines dedicated to explaining why golfers going to a league funded by a government that has a human rights record tantamount to Patrick Reed’s rules of golf record is not only a horrific idea but a misguided one when considering the long-term future of the sport. We have spent a lot of time wondering whether DeChambeau wants his $150 million signing bonus (whatever the number may be) in cryptocurrency or fiat money.

There is a soullessness to this potential reality that was epitomized by the sparsely attended, almost “Truman Show”-like Saudi International, which Harold Varner III rescued at the end with a wild birdie putt from off the green for his second career worldwide win. This soullessness stands in contrast to the genesis of a game that seemingly has more soul than any other in the world. Golf in the kingdom, as a phrase, has certainly depreciated.

It is easy to envision a future in which Super Golf League participants, with little to no fanfare surrounding them, are globetrotting for sums of money that seem miscalculated by factors of 100. There is a nearly voyeuristic feel to this idea of a league undergirded by a government that is trying to bathe itself in the perceived goodness of global sporting icons as it attempts to wash its deeply-rooted sins from public view. How spotless can one appear if the only way to overcome a corrupt reputation is to throw so much money at celebrities that they have no choice other than to put their own reputations at risk?

If that’s not the worst version of sport, what exactly would it be?

Perhaps this is why the WM Phoenix Open stood out. Its best field in the last decade delivered the tournament of the year to date. The Phoenix Open had a bit of everything.

There was feel-good story Sahith Theegala, ranked No. 318 in the Official World Golf Rankings, who slept on the lead for three straight nights before finally succumbing in the end. His entire aura made Joe Burrow’s look meek by comparison.

There was Brooks Koepka, who resurfaced and scared the lead all week. There were Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, who did what top-10 players do. There was Scottie Scheffler, who notched his first professional win in one of the harder places he could have done it. And there were multiple aces on the famous 16th hole with Harry Higgs and Joel Dahmen both ripping their shirts off Sunday.

TPC Scottsdale was a fast, firm, fun festival for four straight days. Phoenix is always a good tournament, but in light of the last few weeks, it popped a even more than usual this time around.

The existence of sadness exacerbates joy.

Two images stand out from the last few weeks — one documented, one not.

The first is Mickelson, in the desert, gesticulating about the PGA Tour’s greed with the confidence only a man who has had nearly $1 billion pass through his bank account possibly could. Contrast that with Theegala falling into his parents’ arms after falling one stroke short of a playoff with Scheffler and Cantlay. A PGA Tour rookie, exhausted from trying to hold off multiple major winners for four straight days to deliver his friends and family an unexpected victory, weeping over both what was and also what could have been.

The best players in the world deserve to be paid more money. They should receive revenue disproportionate to the rest of the players on the PGA Tour because the PGA Tour thrives on the back of their collective body of work. If you want to double or triple the Player Impact Program to funnel $16 million or $24 million a year to Mickelson, I’m in favor of that. Hey, Mickelson has earned it (and probably even more).

And to be sure, the PGA Tour has its problems. There should be fewer events so we get more fields like we did at the Phoenix Open. The course setups should often be more difficult. The whitewashing of player reputations must cease (the existence of bad exacerbates the good!). Coverage should be more thorough (and to be fair, things are moving in that direction). The list is lengthy.

However, the solution is not shutting out the Theegalas so the DeChambeaus can become billionaires. The solution is not crossing the Red Sea to find economic freedom because Mickelson wants to clean up in retirement.

We have done a bad thing in our capitalistic society where we have made personal experience and financial earnings equivalent with one another. We might not say it, but we believe that experiences have a price tag (often an exorbitant one); the reality is that they do not.

The PGA Tour — despite what a handful of players may think — had a hell of a last few weeks. Simply by running its normal lineup of Pebble-Phoenix-Riviera, it suddenly has a cadre of smart, influential voices absolutely riding for its future.

This unintended benefit was perfectly represented by Charley Hoffman’s absurd Instagram post in which he tagged in the Saudi International (!) to protect him (!!) because he was upset with the direction in which a few blades of grass laid down at the Phoenix Open. That … did not have the effect he expected, and everyone who saw through it (read: pretty much everyone) found themselves vociferously defending the PGA Tour.

It’s been a good opening to the year for the best tour in the world, and they seem to have leaned into it. That’s probably a good thing for golf, and it’s certainly symbolic of that “Inside Out” contrast.

The entire concept of the Super Golf League has made the PGA Tour seem like an unbelievably attractive option, more so than it would appear if the threat of competition did not exist at all.

Star golfers likely have big decisions to make in the coming weeks, months or years.

Certainly, they could go to the SGL and become rich beyond perhaps their wildest dreams. But after watching Theegala weeping on his parents’ shoulders … and Higgs and Dahmen taking their clothes off during the middle of a sporting event … and Scheffler dropping the hammer on Cantlay down the stretch on a great course in front of a ginned up audience, wouldn’t that desire have waned?

After seeing the uninspired Saudi International get thumped by the Phoenix Open in two very different desert settings across consecutive — even with all that (alleged) money on the table — it begs the question: How in the world could you choose that world over this one?

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