By Yvette Moise
Back in 1968, a group of top professional golfers, led by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, became frustrated with the limitations of professional golf’s then-governing body, the PGA of America. Feeling the league was not focused enough on promoting the interests of the game’s top stars, these marquee players staged a coup that led to the formation of the upstart PGA Tour. The new entity was designed to ensure the best players reaped the financial benefits that their talents brought to a growing audience for golf while simultaneously creating the best possible experience for fans.
Fifty years later, history is repeating itself, although it is now the PGA Tour that is the monopolistic, questionable steward of the game -- a governing body that has lacked innovation, allowed professional golf to grow stale, and has prioritized its own revenues and the compensation of its executives over providing the best platform to showcase the game’s top players.
Playing the role of disruptor this time around is a much rumored and apparently soon-to-be-announced global golf tour fronted by World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman, which has emerged to offer an alternative to the PGA Tour in much the same way – and for many of the same reasons – that the Tour itself championed its own split half a century ago. The new golf league is poised to offer bigger purses and a larger share of revenue to the games’ best players combined with a more dynamic team-format that will make tournament golf more exciting for fans. It is also poised to broaden golf’s appeal and bring in new audiences to the sport, including Hispanics and African Americans, two groups historically underrepresented in the game. At the same time, a separate group called the Premier Golf League is also challenging the PGA Tour’s dominance over the sport, though this league is reportedly seeking to host golf events under the banner of the PGA Tour.
In response, the PGA Tour, whose stated mission is to “promote the sport of professional golf… [and] the common interests of touring professionals,” has threatened to ban – for life, mind you – any player who decides to play in an event on a rival tour. Given that professional golfers are independent contractors, this stance is legally dubious at best.
But what is perhaps most embarrassing for the PGA Tour is their own telling of their history as an upstart, rival golf circuit, and the similarities it bears to what is playing out today.
In a 2009 story on PGATour.com entitled “Professionals’ split was a good thing for the game,” the piece declares that even though “it was considered by some a risky move for the guys who play professional golf to break away” from the PGA of America to form the PGA Tour, the separation was ultimately good for the game. With the top players attached to the PGA Tour and focused on “pump[ing] up the purses” and “chas[ing] the big money” (sound familiar?), the separation meant that “the regular PGA member was better able to compete on the state and sectional level” and the PGA of America could concentrate on growing the game.
Perhaps most telling, the story declares that the biggest winner of increased competition in the world of professional golf is “golf fans…(who) get more great golf, more exciting tournaments, and more fabulous venues to enjoy. (Professional golf) probably would not be there today if things had stayed status quo.”
Yet preserving the status-quo, and its grip on global professional golf, seems to be all that matters to the once-upstart PGA Tour these days. That is, when they aren’t ignoring the mental health and well-being of their players, administering a secret player bonus program that lacks any sort of transparency, and running a tour with a bloated, diluted tournament schedule that benefits the PGA Tour but whose TV ratings are struggling to beat reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond.
It is no wonder that the Tour’s biggest asset, their star players, are starting to ask questions about what the PGA Tour has done for them lately. Going by the most recent financial information available, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan took home $7.4 million in compensation in 2018, which would have made him the 5th highest earner on the PGA Tour that year, all without hitting a single shot. For comparisons sake, Adam Silver earns $10 million a year as NBA commissioner, which wouldn’t even put him in the top 125 salary wise in the NBA. That type of disparity clearly has top touring pros questioning their allegiances and searching for greener pastures that properly values their athletic contributions and marketability.
Fifty years ago, the best professional golfers in the world realized that the organization tasked with promoting their unique abilities and maximizing their earning potential was simply not doing its job. The players took it upon themselves to look out for their own best interests, and by the PGA Tour’s own admission, the game of golf is better for it. Ironically, the PGA Tour now finds itself as the dinosaur that has failed to evolve and live up to the responsibilities it has to its players. Rather than trying to ban its own players in an effort to snuff out competition that will only make the game stronger, the Tour should embrace this challenge that will undoubtedly spur new ideas and innovations and help modernize tournament golf for the 21st century.
Yvette Moise is the Co-founder and President of the Georgia Latino Film, Sport and Entertainment Alliance