TULSA—All eyes will be on Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth on Thursday and Friday at Southern Hills, the PGA of America grouping the three biggest attractions together for the first two rounds of the PGA Championship. Concentrating so much firepower is not new to professional golf, and there’s no doubting the intrigue surrounding the super pairing … but is the juice worth the squeeze?
Those in favor point to the current of excitement and hype generated by the featured groups, while the counter is they can be counterproductive to the players in question while subtracting attention from the rest of the field. Which side is right? Two of our writers weigh in on the debate.
While the practice of marquee pairings has become common in tournament golf, it is not without some history. The USGA had the bright idea in 1962 at the U.S. Open at Oakmont to pair together in the opening rounds the game’s most popular player, Arnold Palmer, with a hotshot rookie who had won two of the last three U.S. Amateur titles and nearly beat Palmer in the 1960 championship. That was Jack Nicklaus. A rivalry was on its way. Forty years later, the buzz at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla was all about Nicklaus playing alongside the defending champion that year, Tiger Woods.
We’ve come around to the thinking that whatever the drawbacks to intentionally grouping together star players, they are outweighed by the sheer command of attention this brings to golf. In the midst of the NHL and NBA playoffs, plus baseball, nothing will draw more interest the next two days than watching Woods, Spieth and McIlroy play the first two rounds together in the 104th PGA at Southern Hills. Theirs is one of several star groups. Why does golf need to do this? Well, it just does. And that’s OK. Golf’s early rounds only set the stage for the drama to come on the weekend—if we are lucky enough for it to unfold the way fans of all stripes would like, with big names in contention. It might be arbitrary to try and create more drama the first few days, but TV likes it. And TV likes it because viewers like it. Which means sponsors like it, too.
Golf at the highest level is great sport, but it also wants to be great entertainment on the days when no winner is decided. Regardless how the contestants in any of these groupings perform playing alongside their primary adversaries, they’ll put on a show, both individually and collectively. So, yeah, more of this, please. – Dave Shedloski
Inherently this a competition and, theoretically, the PGA of America does not favor one individual over another. In that same breath this tournament is a product, and the best product is a weekend where the best players are contending. The problem with super pairings is that they tend to cannibalize those in them, chewing them up and spitting them out before the action really heats up. They are the collateral damage of a marketing campaign. This is especially the case for those unlucky enough to find themselves in the circus that engulfs Woods at all times. It’s not that these players shrivel in front of the massive, pro-Tiger crowds or even Woods himself; instead, as Spieth pointed out Wednesday, it’s dealing with all the noise coming from the galleries that aren’t paying attention when Woods isn’t hitting.
Speaking of, while conceptually a move for the fans, super pairings are not conducive to those on the ground. The gravitational pull of these marquee attractions are so strong that fans are fighting one another to catch a glimpse, and the glimpses they do get are rarely unblocked. This will be on display at Southern Hills, with the viewing areas not expansive and a number of bottlenecks littered across the property. And it’s not just the players in the featured groups that come out on the business end. Because one or two groups suck all the oxygen, the rest of the field—even at majors—is left to perform in front of empty bleachers and a muted audience. Spreading the stars across the tee sheet clears up any congestion and creates an equilibrium of electricity on the course.
But the real bane of feature pairings is that they’re the antithesis of one of the pillars of professional golf: meritocracy. A featured pairing by its nature should be earned tee time on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, not a contrived construct on a Thursday or Friday morning. There’s no doubt these groups adds to the pre-tournament hype. But this is a major. If you need extra hype, you have some soul searching to do. (Related note, the Masters—a tournament that’s the epitome of a well-oiled machine—usually shies away from featured threesomes. So the real question to tournament officials is, why do you think you’re smarter than Augusta National?)
In short, save the super-talent team-ups for the Avenger movies. – Joel Beall
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