The first event on the pro golf tours teed off at The Sentry tournament in Hawaii, on Thursday. Formerly the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions, it had a new format, with 35 winners on the PGA Tour in 2023 and the top 50 in the 2023 FedEx Cup Playoffs eligible to compete.
It’s a good thing that the FedEx Cup stars were included, because otherwise two top players — Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele — wouldn’t be there. They didn’t win tournaments in 2023. Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy did, but they weren’t in The Sentry field either.
Rahm’s title defense was ruled out because the PGA Tour suspended him for signing with the LIV Tour. McIlroy, who has called himself “not much of a Hawaii guy,’’ opted to start his season with three events on the DP World Tour.
That left The Sentry, with a $20 million purse, offering a field of 59 players. Sixty were invited, but only McIlroy opted out. His comments in the days leading up to the start of the 2024 campaign was eye-opening, though. Once the most outspoken critic of the LIV circuit, McIlroy made an almost complete reversal. Not only did he admit being “too judgmental’’ in his earlier views of players who joined the Saudi circuit, he came out critical of the PGA Tour that he so consistently defended in 2023.
“What LIV and the Saudis have done is expose the flaws in the system,’’ said McIlroy. “We’re all (PGA Tour players) supposed to be independent contractors and we can pick and choose what tournaments we want to play. What LIV and the Saudis exposed is that, if you’re going on a tour, you’re asking sponsors for millions of dollars to sponsor these events and you’re not able to guarantee that the players are going to show up. I can’t believe the PGA Tour has done so well for so long. If we’re going to ask these people for so much money we need to be able to guarantee to them what they’re getting.’’
Viktor Hovland, the FedEx Cup champion, and Ernie Els, the long-time star now competing on PGA Tour Champions, were also among those openly critical of the PGA Tour management as the new season closed in.
An agreement PGA Tour, LIV and DP World Tour leaders by December 31 was proposed, but that deadline came and went. Now the hope is that an agreement will be reached before The Players Championship so the ugly negotiations don’t negatively affect April’s Masters.
Not a great way to start a season, is it?
LIV players won’t hit a ball until their season begins in Mexico on Feb. 2. They have problems, too, but they’re different. The signing of Rahm was huge for the fledgling circuit, but created a dilemma in its tournament format.
Rahm is supposed to captain the 13th team, but he has no players. As a 12-team circuit last year LIV had a workable 48 players in each tournament. With a Rahm team added that won’t work. We’ll see how that problem gets solved – if indeed it does.
The other pro tours are comparatively quiet with their season openers closing in. The LPGA has its Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions running Jan. 18-21 at Lake Nona, in Florida. The top women players – headed by defending champion Brooke Henderson — share the spotlight with celebrities in that one, a prelude to the regular season start at the Jan. 25-28 Drive On Championship.
Also a Florida stop, the Drive On is helping Bradenton Country Club celebrate its centennial. Bradenton is Nelly Korda’s hometown and the club members include Hollis Stacy, an 18-time winner on the LPGA tour, and Paul Azinger. The course was designed by Donald Ross, restored by Ron Garl in 1999 and renovated by Tony Jacklin in 2018.
PGA Tour Champions tees off Jan. 18-20 at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, also in Hawaii. It’ll be the tourney’s 28th staging with 42 legends in the field. Steve Stricker, who won six times last season on the 50 and over circuit, is the defending champion.
The Korn Ferry Tour gets going with two January tournaments in the Bahamas. The first is the Great Exuma Classic Jan. 14-17. The Epson Tour, for the up-and-coming women players with LPGA aspirations, hasn’t announced its schedule yet.