I’ve been an admirer of Dustin Johnson since my son and I followed his group during a round of the NCAA Golf Championships in Williamsburg, Virginia, when he was at Coastal Carolina University. Now, the inaugural LIV golf event has snagged Johnson away from this year’s RBC Canadian Open.
I’m not going to bash a guy for trying to make some money for his family. I’m not even going to drone on unreservedly about how great the PGA is, or how wonderful the Tour is. I spent some time in the golf industry. Despite trying to grow the game and work closely with the PGA sections, there wasn’t a lot of interest on their part. But that was over a decade ago.
Because I started a small competitive junior/amateur tour in a strategic market, not all the golf establishment was happy with me. Still, I helped bring to the golf tour sponsorship table major sponsors like Servpro and Dick’s Sporting Goods, well before they joined up with the PGA Tour.
And, an associate of mine who had launched a competitive golf event on the west coast, had heard some rumblings about the Tour players and even spoke about recruiting Donald Trump (before he was active in politics) to start a competitive professional tour. I had some contact with Trump’s people in politics and we very nearly made that approach in 2011.
All this is to say that, I can’t throw stones at Johnson for taking an alternate playing route, when I did so, successfully, on the management side a dozen or so years ago. Now, to be fair, the response of the PGA and PGA Tour to some of their critics since that time has been nothing less than astounding.
Finally, some folks “got it” on diversity. The game, which was on the brink of serious trouble when I got into the business, heading directly into the tsunami winds of the 2008 great recession, has grown by leaps and bounds. The people who “run golf” have made incredible strides at reaching out to the next generation, embracing diversity and accessibility, and being more customer-friendly.
Through programs like the PGA Junior League and the PGA WORKS and PGA LEADS programs, golf has never been so welcoming. Take into account the founding of a Pro Golf Management School at the historically black University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and Steph Curry’s funding of an NCAA Division one golf program at Howard University, and a lot of the issues that I focused on when I started a golf-related business are now on everybody’s radar.
By many reports I’ve seen, and heard, the Tour has been equally as willing to change, and several of its players, perhaps most particularly Rory McIlroy, have publicly praised the Tour for its improvements. Still, some guys want to see more opportunities, including financial benefits, directed toward the players who generate the profits. I, for one, understand that.
Historically, the PGA has had a hard time keeping up with change and adapting to what are not “only” cultural changes, but new market conditions.
Right now, it seems like maybe there is a player revolt underway, and it will probably take a deft Tour executive leadership willing to continue to change and listen, to manage the controversy. This brings us to the RBC Canadian Open and the lack of participation from Dustin Johnson.
Canada has a long and storied golf history that is most prominently showcased annually at the RBC Canadian Open. Johnson, a former world number-one ranked golfer, has had RBC as a sponsor and is a past champion of the event. Moreover, being in the family of the world’s most prominent Canadian athlete, heck, let’s make that the world’s most well-known Canadian, it’s easy to see why Johnson’s opt-out this year has rubbed more than a few folks in the wrong way.
Again, I get it, free agency has come to every major sport, and now is coming to golf. Like other sports, golfers too have a limited window to earn cash during their playing career. Of course, golf also has a PGA Champions (seniors) Tour that has extended playing careers.
While the rumoured rush to whitewash history by replacing promotional materials, that allegedly featured Johnson, may be a bit over-the-top, it’s worth noting the fans, ultimately pay all the bills.
Despite some earlier statements that were less-than-kind toward the Tour, Johnson has cleared up his language and approach. He’s praised the PGA Tour and said that his venture into LIV is simply a guy seeking out the most opportunities for his family’s well-being. Fair enough.
My only hope was that, with some recognition of his unique history, DJ would have taken the week of the RBC Canadian Open out to honour the Canadian fans who have given him so much support, by playing in Canada’s National Championship.
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