DAN BICKLEY

Bickley: Even with PGA-LIV split, WM Phoenix Open stands tall

Feb 6, 2024, 4:01 PM

The 16th hole at the WM Phoenix Open...

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Golf is a sport disrupted and a house divided. Some of the best players have been poached and purchased by a foreign country. The forecast calls for more turbulence ahead, along with dangerous levels of apathy.

The WM Phoenix Open is one of the few non-majors buffered for success.

That’s because our PGA Tour stop is very different. It’s about us, not the players. It’s about the quality of galleries and not the quality of field. It’s a tournament where the favorite activity is people watching, and that may or may not include actual golfers.

That’s how the tournament survived the loss of Tiger Woods, who checked out at peak chaos, when crushing mobs followed him around TPC Scottsdale. We’ve survived the loss of Phil Mickelson, the hometown hero turned great betrayer. And we’ll survive the loss of Jon Rahm, who once spoke so heroically about the importance of history and tradition in golf, only to prove that every man has a price.

Rahm made his LIV Golf debut over the weekend, blowing his shot at victory with bogeys on the final two holes. He said he took great solace in his team’s victory, one he called “a force to be reckoned with.” Team golf? With music blaring in the background? You can’t imagine how it pains me to hear Rahm talking like just another greedy lapdog.

LIV Golf had all the planets align on Sunday. There were no NFL games on the schedule and torrential rain wiped out the final round at Pebble Beach. LIV’s audience was still a paltry 432,000 viewers, even with the debut of Rahm and a compelling playoff between Joaquin Niemann and Sergio Garcia.

In head-to-head competition on Saturday, the PGA Tour drew 1.95 million viewers, compared to the 168,000 that chose LIV Golf.

There’s no doubt that dueling Tours has created a financial windfall for a current generation of golfers. It’s a great time to be Pat Perez or Harold Varner or Tyrrell Hatton. But it’s a terrible time to be a fan of the sport, where it’s no longer the best against the best.

Justin Thomas, one of the remaining star players loyal to the PGA Tour, said the sport won’t be whole for quite some time.

“I want the best product and the best players, and I would say there’s a handful of players on LIV that would make the Tour a better place,” Thomas said. “But I’m definitely not in the agreement that they should be able to come back that easily.

“I think there’s a lot of us that made sacrifices … whether it’s (being) true to your word or what we believe in or just didn’t make that decision. And I totally understand that things are changing (with a new investor group on the PGA Tour), and things are getting better. But I would have a hard time with it. And I think a lot of guys would have a hard time with it.”

The WM Phoenix Open is clearly lacking star power in 2024. Rahm was extremely popular in the Valley, a swashbuckler-type who wore a Pat Tillman jersey at the 16h hole, the reigning torchbearer for all Sun Devils. Rory McIlroy isn’t here, either. And a pair of top five players — Viktor Hovland and Xander Schauffele — withdrew from the tournament on Monday.

But it won’t matter because it never does. Because Thomas, Scottie Scheffler, and Jordan Spieth are big enough to fill the marquee. Because the raucous hecklers at No. 16 will still know every detail about every golfer in the field, like always. And because a little rain isn’t enough to stop this party.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6-10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

Dan Bickley

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