Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour's Major Problem
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There are 14 PGA Tour events on the calendar in advance of the first major. Heading into the Masters, which begins on April 11th, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy each will have teed off in five of those 14 tournaments.
McIlroy is off to a terrible start of the 2013 season. In four starts he has one top-10 finish. He placed 45th last weekend at the Shell Houston Open, originally scheduled to be his last tournament before the Masters. He added this week's Valero Texas Open as a final tune-up for Augusta. In his other two starts this year, the former world No. 1 lost in the first round of the Accenture Match Play and withdrew during the first round of The Honda Classic.
A truly terrible start after such a phenomenal season last year may worry some golfers, but with Augusta looming on the horizon, McIlroy doesn't even seem to care (via PGATour.com).
"I don't care if I miss ten cuts in a row if I win a major a year," McIlroy told reporters in the Valero Texas Open press conference. "I don't care. I mean, that's what it's all about, is winning the big tournaments."
The kid is candid, and he means what he says. McIlroy, who turns 24 years old in a month, has already been a professional golfer for nearly six years. He has made more money in tournament winnings and endorsements than most normal humans would make in three lifetimes, so it stands to reason someone like McIlroy would only care about the majors.
Like Woods, McIlroy also only seems to care about the majors because, historically, we measure the greatness of a golfer by the number of major championships he has won.
Tiger has been chasing Jack Nicklaus his entire career. He can't truly be considered the greatest golfer of all time—Woods has been four major titles behind Nicklaus for quite some time—despite the fact Woods has won four more tournaments than Nicklaus did in his career.
Woods has won 77 events on the PGA Tour, while Nicklaus won 73 events in his career, good for third most in PGA Tour history. Sam Snead, the leader in the career-wins clubhouse, ended his career with 82 victories. Snead, however, won just—ha, just—seven majors, half as many as Woods and 11 fewer than Nicklaus. (It should be noted that Gary Player has nearly 100 career victories between the PGA Tour and the Sunshine Tour. Player won nine majors.)
His entire career, Woods has been chasing Jack, not Sam or Gary. The majors matter to Woods, so the majors matter to McIlroy, who will spend his entire career chasing Tiger.
McIlroy's comment about winning the majors came in reply to a question regarding his recent struggles. He was asked about the importance of consistency in one's career and if the week-in-week-out grind of the game is more or less important than peaking for the big events. (Via PGATour.com):
Of course it's not going to be great for your confidence going into those majors if you're missing 10 cuts in a row. But when people look back on a person's career, you don't say, "Oh Jack Nicklaus was so consistent." OK, you can say he finished 19 times second in a major—but what you think about is the 18 majors he won.
That's what people remember. People remember the wins. They don't remember that I shot 65 at Doral to finish eighth. It doesn't…people don't remember that stuff, but they remember the wins, and they remember the high points, and it's only a minority that will remember the low points and will get on you for that.
McIlroy is one of the big stars at this week's Valero Texas Open, something the PGA Tour is trying very hard to remind potential television viewers of, with emails and front-page web stories highlighting his appearance. McIlroy gives fans one more reason to watch an otherwise insignificant pre-Masters tournament. So, how must PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and his staffers feel about McIlroy's comments that he doesn't care if he makes the cut so long as he does well next week at Augusta?
To his credit, McIlroy said the right things when specifically asked about playing this week, stating, "It would be great to win. Every tournament you turn up to, the ultimate goal is to try and win. I'd love to leave here on Sunday night with a trophy and have that before heading to Augusta next week."
Again, it's all about Augusta.
Woods is no different. After he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, he bristled when reporters reminded him of his previous statements regarding the importance of major titles. Tiger won't be back until when? He wins a major. He could win 10 times on the PGA Tour this year, but if those wins don't come in any of the four majors, people will still question how good he is.
The more popular golf became during the era Woods dominated—and continues to become with Woods and McIlroy as two of the world's best—the more importance has been placed on winning major championships. When you are the best of your generation, the logical next step is to become the best of any generation. In golf, that measurement is ruled by winning majors.
Woods is at the point in his career where it's understandable why he only cares about the four majors.
Sadly for golf, McIlroy ascended to the top of the sport so quickly that, at 23, he is on a path to track Tiger, not the leaders at Quail Hollow or Firestone or the TPC San Antonio this weekend. Those tournaments are a means to an end for McIlroy. He is already at the point in his career, before he turns 24 years old, where the week-to-week grind is a nuisance more than a way of life.
The PGA has a problem, and it's a major one. If Woods and McIlroy don't care about the regular PGA Tour events, why should we?
Why should the fans care about any golf tournament other than the four majors if the top stars in the game show up to win but don't even care if they miss the cut? Even in the events they show up to play, even in the events they show up and win—Woods, McIlroy and the likes of major champions like Phil Mickelson, who has started eight of the 14 pre-Masters tournaments, winning one—fans know it's not much more than a tune-up for the next major on the calendar.
This is not just an issue for golf. Most casual tennis fans only care about the four majors in that sport too. At least with golf, we have the history behind some of the world's best courses each week. It may not be a major, but fans can still share in the excitement of a tournament at Pebble Beach or the TPC at Sawgrass or Bay Hill or Congressional. Still, the big tournaments with full fields never get the same ratings the majors get, and that's on the game's biggest stars as much as anyone.
We have been conditioned as a viewership to care more and more about the biggest events, but that, in turn, makes us care less and less about the other events. And while we applaud the honesty of a player like McIlroy to let us into his mindset for the season—for his entire career—it's rather disheartening to know that if he struggles this week at the Valero Texas Open, he will only care how it impacts his game next week at Augusta.
On one hand, we should respect the mental fortitude of a player as young as McIlroy to not let the lows get to him. On the other, it makes watching the non-majors feel a bit too much like preseason football, spring training or a friendly match in soccer.
If the outcome doesn't matter to the game's best, why should our interest?
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