This is our first Low Gross vs. Low Net debate, pitting two passionate golfers with differing ball flights and opinions on the game: scratch golfer and Golf Digest editorial director Max Adler against 12-handicap (or thereabouts) digital editorial director Sam Weinman. Today’s question relates to the PGA Tour’s planned return to competition in June, albeit without fans and with other restrictions in place to limit the risk of the coronavirus transmission. With that in mind, should the tour consider staging an event without caddies?
Mr. Adler has the tee …
Let’s first push aside any notion this hinges on science. Neither of us has studied infectious disease, and so we are settling the question from the same basically informed perspective that it’s safe to resume conducting professional golf tournaments. So the question isn’t if 156 caddies unduly add to the human footprint, but if they are essential to the event.
And I say they absolutely are.
Cameramen and audio technicians will be there, so let’s remember why we watch golf on TV in the first place. Because the game contested at its absolute highest level is compelling. You, Sam, and your hacker friends might enjoy seeing a fit and well-dressed pro brought down a peg or two by hoofing his own bag, but this is the same base impulse at play when you smirk at a tabloid headline about the Royals or Brad Pitt. It’s golf schaudenfreude, and don’t try to masquerade it as anything else.
A biathlete carries a rifle on his back as he races his lungs out on skis, but that sport is primarily about fitness. Perhaps you’ve only experienced it in accidental spurts, but golf is a subtle exam of skill and strategy. It’s why we’re treated more than occasionally to battles across generations, like Tom Watson nearly winning The Open at 59 or Davis Love III winning a PGA Tour event at 51. In a world where pros carry their bags, over the course of 72 holes fitness (and thus age) will become a disproportionate factor. No disrespect to the Bo Hoags and Harry Higgs of the tour, but we’ll see a lot more 20-somethings hanging on to win while Phil Mickelson bogeys out and Tiger Woods withdraws. Thrilling.
Not that you’d ever play four consecutive rounds of rattlebottom, but the mental drain of performing close to mistake-free for that period of time is hard to overstate. These guys carry intricate green maps not just to read putts, but to plan the speed and spin of approach shots to get the ball to feed just right off contours into straight, uphill looks at birdie. These guys play chess across 7,400-yard boards, but it becomes checkers when their mental attention is occupied with cleaning grooves, wiping balls, pacing sprinklers and juggling rakes.
In these first events back, presumably most of the entourage (agents, trainers, psychologists, family and friends) is not going to be permitted. Give a tour pro at least one man upon whom he can rely. For the sake of the quality of your own entertainment.
Of course, golf is better with caddies. I have a son who is a caddie. Carts don’t find my errant drives, they’re useless on club selection, and I can’t tell you the last time one offered an encouraging word after I’ve skulled a wedge. In the words of former presidential candidate John Kerry, I was for caddies before I was against them.
But the issue here isn’t whether caddies add to the golf experience. Instead it is, like everything these days, delineating between what is essential and non-essential. When tech companies are looking to launch, they call it identifying the “MVP”— minimum viable product. And for professional golf as it precariously seeks to resume its schedule, viability hinges on safety, entertainment value and competitive integrity.
A PGA Tour “MVP” does not depend on caddies, and when it comes to safety, their presence is counter to the objective. Start with the obvious: restricting caddies would avoid the inevitable close interaction with players. But there would be subtler implications as well. No caddies means 156 fewer bodies to feed and shelter, and to sidestep gingerly around at practice areas and in parking lots. Most importantly when it comes to the most valuable commodity, it’s 156 fewer people who would need to be administered a COVID-19 test. We start running low on those and events are getting scrapped altogether.
As for entertainment, the tour’s primary objective in the absence of fans on site is to produce compelling live content, an opportunity magnified by the conspicuous void of sports everywhere else. Save for some notable exceptions—Steve Williams violently ripping away a photographer’s camera, for instance, or Michael Greller engaged with Jordan Spieth in a prolonged, overly intricate debate over shot selection—caddies rarely make the highlight packages.
Lastly there’s the competitive makeup of the event, admittedly one element that would be altered by the absence of caddies, but not fatally so. In recent days, tour players like Adam Hadwin have expressed reservations about competing without rakes in bunkers or with flagsticks remaining in holes, so you can imagine how they’d resist having to take a cart, or better yet, carrying their own bags. But would anyone really question if they’re still playing golf? Is this not how they were all recently playing at the highest levels of the college game?
Perhaps the best comparison is the NHL and NBA, leagues that are both exploring playoff tournaments held without fans, which is far more consequential than in golf because it eliminates the decided advantages of playing before a home crowd. But even then, the core game is intact. The best score wins.
LOW GROSS: Like another one of your 5 for 4’s, I concede your point on minimum viable product. I will be tuned in when Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matt Wolff play best-ball skins at Seminole on May 17 in four carts with no caddies. It’s fantastic that with a modified format golf can the first major live sport to be broadcast since the world shut down. But as far as an official PGA Tour event, there’s a standard there we shouldn’t mess with.
LOW NET: Maybe so, but this harrowing moment is forcing us to rethink how everything works. It’s why Jimmy Fallon is hosting the “Tonight Show” from home, and why our kids are attending school over Zoom in their pajamas. These are not choices made between the best version of something or one stripped to its core. With safety paramount, it’s the choice between the simple version, or nothing at all.