PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — You've likely seen by now that Tiger Woods is playing with Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler during the first two rounds of the Players Championship. You may have also seen that Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are playing together as well. The top six picks in the PGA Tour Fan Popularity Draft are packed into two groups!
There are, of course, legitimate business reasons for this decision, namely these three: 1. To build hype for the week, 2. To promote the kind of back-and-forth banter we've seen this week between Tiger and Phil, and 3. To sell PGA Tour LIVE subscriptions.
This isn't a new phenomenon, but featured groups seem to becoming more frequent, peaking in 2018 with the Tour's emphasis on selling live streaming subscriptions. (Side note: Given the number of requests I've received for my company's subscription login info, I'd say that part is working.) At the Genesis Open: Woods, Thomas, McIlroy. At the Valspar: Woods, Spieth, Stenson. Last week in Charlotte, it was Woods alongside defending U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka and Masters champ Patrick Reed. Fun, right?!
These groups may make short-term business sense, but they're manipulative, anti-climactic, shortsighted, and I won't stand for them any longer. Here are five reasons why:
1. Top-heavy groups skip out on an opportunity to give exposure to lesser-known players
Playing alongside one of the game's big names is the best way for lesser-known Tour players to get exposure, particularly in the featured group coverage, where you see every shot and plenty of personal interaction. Gimme my Tiger fix and I'll be more than happy to learn a little more about whoever is having a go alongside him. That's how it used to be done, using the top players' built-in star power to elevate the rest of the Tour, as Woods acknowledged Tuesday when talking about his history with Mickelson. "Normally, for most of our careers we were 1 and 2 in the world," he said. "We were on opposite sides of the draw with exact tee times on the opposite side. We never saw each other, and that's what the Tour wanted."
One of the most compelling groups of the year was Tour rookie Sam Burns going toe-to-toe with Woods — and coming out on top — at this year's Honda Classic. Burns no doubt gained some fans in the process. Giving some shine to the game's lesser-known players promotes the long-term health of the game and the Tour.
2. They further cement the Tour into a small group of haves and a big pool of have-nots.
Golf tournaments are far different from men's tennis events, where the winner is almost certain to come from a pool of four to five stars. Pretending the Tour works that way only furthers what we as media and fans are already guilty of — whittling down the field of wildly talented players to a short list.
As a result, this week will feel like a letdown if the winner doesn't come from the only-one-name-needed crew of Tour stars (DJ, JT, Jordan, Rickie, Rory, Tiger, Phil). Six of those seven players are in the featured groups, while the rest of the household names are packed into a few more groups, including these pairings: Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama; Jason Day, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia; Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Featured groups exacerbate the sense that there is a main event and an undercard, when, in fact, these guys are all playing the same tournament.
3. They turn a lively atmosphere into a spectator nightmare
Fowler and Mickelson each have large, independent fan bases, while Woods's following is a traveling circus in both vibe and number. That's a great thing! The game needs stars. But the Players has plenty of electricity without oversaturating any one section of the course. It's hard enough getting a glimpse of Woods to begin with — now it's that much harder for fans to see any of their favorites.
"I played with TW last week," Patrick Reed said of his Quail Hollow group. "Justine [Reed's wife] said she probably saw maybe 35 percent of the shots we hit." Easy solution: Spread 'em out across the course! Spread the goodness! Fans posted up at a particular hole will have several groups to look forward to, and fans looking to follow their non-Tiger favorite will be able to do so as well.
4. Overexposure! Anti-climax!
It's tough enough that most of the Tour's stars live on the same Jupiter, Fla., cul-de-sac and are collectively chummier by the day. But doesn't this devalue the novelty of seeing these guys together — particularly when the weekend pairings will look watered down compared to the early rounds? This brings me to my last (and most important) point…
5. These groups should be earned not manufactured
The point of conducting a tournament is to see the best players battle it out for the title on the weekend. It's not nearly as fun to see a Williams sisters showdown in the first round. Putting together the players we want to see on Day 1? It's cheating! It's playing God. I want Tiger vs. Phil. I want Rory vs. Spieth. But I want to earn them. Otherwise, Phil's right:
"It gets me thinking," he said Tuesday. "Why don't we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head-to-head and just have kind of a high-stake, winner-take-all match?"
I guess there we can all agree: That would be a hell of an idea.
Meantime? I'll be on the 1st tee watching as the game's biggest names duke it out to be low-man in the group Thursday. And, yes, I'm sure I'll even guiltily enjoy it.