Are We Having Fun Yet?
In a year when money has sucked the joy out of the game, the PNC Championship was a welcome sight
By Michael Bamberger
One of the most amusing things anybody in golf said this year was a casual question posed by Lee Trevino to Tiger Woods. These two buddies, separated by almost 40 years, were on the practice green beside the 1st tee at the Old Course this summer, waiting to play in a four-hole exhibition, a Monday warmup act for the Open itself.
“Did Santa Claus tee off yet?” Trevino asked.
Trevino’s Santa, of course, was John Daly, with his Burl Ives beard and his Charles Barkley stomach.
And there was Santa Claus on Sunday, on the top of the leaderboard at 3 p.m. at the PNC Championship, playing alongside his son, John Daly II, a talented golfer at Arkansas, where he is a sophomore. They were in the house at 24 under par in the scramble event.
Vijay Singh and his son, Qass, were sitting on the same score, with four holes to play. The event is a birdie-fest, so the Claus-JD2 score was not likely to hold up. But it might! And even thinking about that prospect was fun.
You remember fun. It was once a tenet of the game. Competitive golf does produce a sort of exquisite pain, but there has always been something fun about it. Vijay’s grumpy excellence was actually fun. As for Daly, he is one of the most talented and popular figures ever to play professional golf. Just for starters, nobody is going to accuse Daly of taking himself too seriously. We’ve all seen the pants.
You know it has been a weird year when some of its best moments come from its giggliest events. The PNC Pro-and-Relative event. The Celebration of Champions at the Open in St. Andrews, where Trevino and Woods played with Rory McIlroy and Georgia Hall. Daly won that one, by the way, with his three teammates — Nick Faldo, Zach Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. The Wednesday par-3 event at the Masters this year was called early, because of rain, but Mike Weir got it going and got it in. The Korean golfer Tom Kim, 20, stole the show at the Presidents Cup, which is kind of amazing, in that he played for the losing team.
I’m not saying these events stirred the soul, but they were fun.
The folks at dictionary.com have declared woman as their word of the year. They had their reasons. Golf’s word of the year is money. Way too much of the golf conversation in 2022 has been about who is making what. But here’s the thing: Nobody cares. Well, OK, there are a hundred or so men who play golf on TV who care, plus their agents. Broadly speaking, professional golf is sucking the air out of its own oxygen tank.
You can talk about Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tiger as drivers of professional golf over the past century, and they have been. But there’s another group totally being ignored here, and that is us. Professional golf works because we care.
I see this with great appreciation and affection for the man, but Arnold did not make professional golf. Professional golf made him. Arnold’s single greatest strength, as a man on the stage, was that he understood that. He really did. Had Charl Schwartzel not won the 2011 Masters, somebody else would have. He went LIV in a big way, but where is he now without that Masters win? The Masters is the great stew of tradition, course, fans, the broadcast, the write-ups, the people who have won it, the people who have not. The prize money is not even on the top-10 list of Reasons We Care.
The thing that is in danger right now, in professional golf, is our passion. If I were Jay Monahan or Greg Norman or Charl Schwartzel or Collin Morikawa, I’d be worried about that. Our passion has already taken a hit from the PGA Tour/LIV divide, by all this money talk.
The par-3 event at the Masters, the four-hole exhibition at the Open, the Pro-and-Relative, the Presidents Cup showcase all the things we like about golf.
Turns out the Dalys’ 24-under total wasn’t enough. Vijay and Qass finished two better. I was rooting for the Singhs down the stretch, only because JD and JD2 won it last year. Also, there’s something authentic about Vijay’s grumpiness. It wasn’t his job to be nice. His job was to make the shots. But the real point here is that I cared, at least to a modest degree. Something brought me in and it wasn’t money. The majors became the majors because the players cared, the writers cared, the fans cared.
On the subject of what the players can earn for their play, yes, there are markets at work that determine that, and right now they are in a state of upheaval. The Saudi backers of the LIV series have been effective in making that happen. But there’s one big bit of weirdness in that: It’s not making professional golf better. Could it? Maybe. But maybe not.
What has made Tiger so compelling for so long is how much he has cared. He cared enough about the PNC Championship, and the chance to compete with his son, that he played when his body, had it been given a vote, would have said no.
That’s kind of weird, that a two-person scramble is the event that gets his attention, but that’s where Tiger is now, and that’s where we are too. Some of us, anyhow.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]