This week's WM Phoenix Open has a surprisingly impressive field. Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say it had a surprisingly impressive field. World No. 4 Viktor Hovland withdrew from the event on Monday, and he was followed shortly thereafter by world No. 5 Xander Schauffele. And while Phoenix will still include five of the top 15 players in the Official World Golf Rankings -- including world No. 1 (and two-time champion) Scottie Scheffler -- the early-week departures were a reminder of yet another disadvantage the PGA Tour has when compared to LIV Golf.
The PGA Tour-LIV debate has been reheated on the heels of a great weekend for LIV that included Jon Rahm's debut and a four-hole playoff between Joaquin Niemann and Sergio Garcia., and unfortunately for the PGA Tour, it happened on a weekend where the final round of its Pebble Beach Pro-Am was canceled because of weather. It was a good break for LIV and a bad run for the Tour.
One aspect of both leagues that has been highlighted over the past few days is that one product is a known quantity; you know what you're getting. The other? Not so much.
Whatever you want to say about the way LIV Golf does business, one characteristic of its league that makes a lot of sense is how few events it has and how players are contracted to play them all. When the league goes to Las Vegas this week and then Hong Kong, Australia, Miami and Singapore later in 2024, all of its players will be there. We already know that, which is a good thing for fans of the league, whether they are attending in person or watching on TV.
The PGA Tour, for many different reasons, doesn't maintain that level of consistency. Take this week's WDs for Hovland and Schauffele. All of a sudden, two top-five players withdrawing from an event they signed up to play means that event -- despite its annual status as one of the best weeks of the PGA Tour year -- has taken a massive hit. The two players who replaced Hovland and Schauffele (combined OWGR wins: 19)? Victor Perez and Alexander Bjork. Fine golfers but hardly hits.
Getting word the Hovland w/d is not LIV related*— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) February 5, 2024
*-(boilerplate "someone could be lying" and "he could change his mind" disclaimers here)
This is the difficult part about having an informally split league but not a formally split one. What the Tour has created is a series of 12 signature events where all the top players will almost always show up. But the in-between -- the tournaments that are not signature events like the Phoenix Open and Charles Schwab Challenge -- get treated almost like practice time for the top players. They could, apparently, take or leave these events.
Hovland withdrew to go work on his swing before the Genesis Invitational, and while it is unknown why Schauffele withdrew, it would not surprise me if the reason was similar given his poor T54 showing at Pebble Beach last week.
Translated:— Rick Gehman (@RickRunGood) February 5, 2024
"Confirmed that Viktor will take a week of training in Florida before returning to competition in the Genesis Invitational.
Didn't feel comfortable with tournament play as it is now and wanted to figure out the swing and find a gpd feel for he goes to LA!" https://t.co/PoGjYDIHW0
Again, the Tour has 12 events where this would not happen. It would not have happened last week at Pebble Beach. It will not happen next week at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera. But it also has 23 events where it would. For fans, it is confusing to conflate all of these events under the same league. And while this is not necessarily the biggest of the Tour's problems right now, it's still an advantage that LIV Golf has over the Tour.
It's also not unique to golf. The NBA has been facing this problem for years. Fans get excited about seeing their favorite players live in a given city, only to find out the day of the game that one or more of those players will be sitting out to get some needed rest.
In the short term, this is not a massive deal. How many people were going to the Phoenix Open to see Schauffele that will now not be going? Perhaps zero. In the long term, though, it's better for fans to mostly know what they're getting up and down the schedule. That's just expectation setting and product management 101.
So, while these two withdrawals were both understandable and did not make huge waves within the golf world, to me they are emblematic of a bigger problem for the PGA Tour (and again, the Tour is not alone in this), which is that the league puts on too many events and doesn't take a long enough view that scarcity breeds excitement, even if that just means formally splitting the league into two.