PGA Tour starts a new year that feels like the old one. There's more to golf than just the golf

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Patrick Cantlay tips his cap with the First Responders Children's Foundation logo during the pro-am round of The Sentry golf event,, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)

KAPALUA, Hawaii – One upside for the PGA Tour extending the Dec. 31 deadline to finalize a deal with Saudi Arabia is the new season starting Thursday at Kapalua can avoid a big distraction. The focus finally returns to golf.

Except that it really doesn't.

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The new year feels a lot like the old one — questions about a fractured landscape, more money than ever that still doesn't seems to be enough, LIV Golf gearing up for another season while fans wonder who will be the next player to get an offer he can't refuse.

All of which led Mackenzie Hughes and Patrick Cantlay to long for the good old days, even if they didn't necessarily agree on the dates.

Hughes referred to 2019 as the “peak of professional golf,” at least for someone his age (33). It was the year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Tiger Woods was the Masters champion.

“Our economic model was sustainable,” he said. “The LIV threat came along and all of a sudden we started to double the purses, and we're asking sponsors to double their investment, and we're giving them the same product,” Hughes said. “Fans also, I think, are left wondering, ‘Do guys even love playing golf anymore, or are they all just concerned about money?’

“The fan just wants to watch golf,” he said. “I think you watch sports for an escape from other nonsense, but I think golf has brought a lot of nonsense onto its plate. And now you don't get just golf, you get a lot of other stuff going on. It's a bit of a circus.”

Cantlay thinks back to 2021 when it was all about the golf, though that's personal. Fans were coming back in force from the pandemic, and he sure heard all of them when he pulled off that remarkable rally to beat Bryson DeChambeau in a playoff in the BMW Championship. The next week he beat Jon Rahm on the final hole to win the FedEx Cup and was voted PGA Tour player of the year.

And now?

“I feel for the fan,” Cantlay said. “There's been a ton of confusion not only for players out on tour in the last year or two, but I can only imagine for the fan at home. So I hope with having more of the best players play the same weeks, they know exactly which weeks are important, and important to us as players. And they get to see a lot more tournaments where the best players on tour are competing against each other down the stretch on Sunday.”

When will it get fixed? What will it look like? Everyone has an opinion, and so many players know so little. Cantlay knows more than most, and he doesn't divulge even his own opinions out of respect to his position on the PGA Tour board.

Hughes can envision his ideal outcome. He just has no idea how to get there. He would love the PGA Tour and LIV to find a way to co-exist. But how? The elite in golf — players like Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland — stayed loyal when each could have reaped Saudi riches. Wouldn't they be the big losers if everything was put back together the way it was?

“How do you make everyone happy? You can't,” Hughes said. “The way forward I hope is smoother. But I know it will be messy before it gets smooth again.”

He feels the PGA Tour is not as strong without some of the best players, and it will be a topic at some point this week.

Rahm was the latest to defect. He won last year at Kapalua. Rahm has been seen on Maui this week while on vacation. A couple of players ran into him and the meeting was described as somewhere between cordial and chilly. Aloha.

Messy before it gets smooth again.

“A lot of distractions,” Schauffele said. “It’s been like that for quite some time.”

Schauffele, who has never seriously contemplated going to LIV despite his name being mentioned as much as any over the last 18 months, has adopted a mantra of keeping his head in the sand. That's not to suggest he doesn't care. He has strong opinions. That starts with his lack of trust in PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan.

“I love what I do for work, and I’m obsessed with my job, but at the end of the day I am a small piece of a big puzzle,” Schauffele said. “And I think everyone wants to see that puzzle sort of whole without missing pieces.”

He just doesn't know how to make it whole.

“I’m sure there’s some smart people out there that have some ideas on how to do it correctly. I’m not one of them,” Schauffele said. “You’re going to bother some people more than others. A lot of people feel like they’re owed something. So when you take everyone’s opinion into play, I think you just need someone that’s really smart that’s going to create a fair pathway back for everyone to play again.”

A new year begins, at least for the PGA Tour. The LIV season starts the first weekend in February, same as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The best players won't be in the same place until the Masters in April. That's one of four weeks golf feels whole to Collin Morikawa, who turned pro in 2019. The good old days.

“That was normal when I turned pro,” Morikawa said. “I never thought it was going to be anything different.”


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