Professional golf’s COVID-19-inspired break was long, but at long last, it has ended. Golf is back, though it is sure to be back in a form nearly unrecognizable to what we’re used to seeing week in and week out on the PGA Tour. Let’s look at how we got here and where we’re going.

Golf did everything it could to provide some kind of content through the break. The European Tour found its answer in virtual tournaments and streaming tour professionals hitting balls in simulators. It was a valiant effort — and provided video clips of Martin Kaymer yelling in German, which is always good — but it didn’t provide much juice. Where F1’s virtual races were genuinely exciting, and assorted clips of baseball announcers commenting computer vs. computer on MLB The Show video game streams were fun, indoor driving range hitting bays didn’t move the needle.

Back stateside, there were two major PGA brand extensions in the COVID-19 era. 

TaylorMade took the first stab with a project that should have been a huge success. The brand paired four of their best staffers (Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson against Ricky Fowler and Matt Wolff) at one of the most revered and private golf courses in the country, Seminole Golf Club.

On its face, that’s an incredible combination. The three biggest names should have brought in even the most casual of casual golf fans, while the beatniks of the fanbase could focus on Wolff’s ascendant talent and a golf course built for architecture nerds to salivate over. 

In reality, the event didn’t do all that much. Certainly not when compared to golf’s second effort.

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re familiar with The Match and all the hoopla that went with it. Phil Mickleson and Tiger Woods brought back their huge cash game from 2019 with a few friends and a new spin. They partnered with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning respectively to play a match play event with the winning team donating some big bucks to the charity of their choice. 

It went absolutely gangbusters.

The Match, an exhibition where only half the competitors actually play golf for a living, set the new cable viewership record for the sport. TNT outdid The Masters.

That’s bonkers.

The question now becomes what to do with this incredible success.

The PGA Tour is not under an existential threat from one-off exhibitions like these. It’s not even under threat from things like the Premier Golf League, that pipe dream of a kind of Champions League for golf funded out of Saudi Arabian royals’ pockets.

The existential threat to the PGA Tour is, instead, boredom with the PGA Tour.

With precisely six exceptions each year, the PGA Tour puts out a nearly identical product week after week. The four majors are different. The annual match play event is different. The Tour Championship is different. Every other event, including the WGCs, including the big events like Bay Hill and The Memorial, including even most of the FedEx Cup playoffs, are indistinguishable to the average fan.

If the PGA Tour learns anything from The Match, it should be to investigate different formats for tournaments. The answer isn’t in the novelty of one-off exhibitions. You may remember the Monday Night Golf experiment and how it fared over time. Nor is the answer found in broadcasting nongolfers playing golf. There’s a reason why the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am isn’t one of the biggest draws of the calendar year. 

The real lesson from The Match is that filling a schedule with week after week of full-field stroke-play events is bad for business. 

Something needs to be done to draw eyes on an average week. The European Tour has done GolfSixes, a match play-ish format played with six-hole matches. It announced plans for a mixed-gender event in 2020, which was unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19. It also has a crazy and exciting Knockout format event in Belgium.

The European Tour is doomed to be the little brother of the PGA Tour, but it continues to try and push the envelope in ways that the PGA Tour should look to copy.

If the PGA Tour wants to continue to grow the game, it needs to find new ways to present the product. Or they can just hand over all the CBS broadcasts to the TNT team. That CBS commercial-to-shot ratio is all out of whack.

Ben Goren

Ben Goren is a contributing writer for Stick and Hack and has been addicted to the game of golf for the past 15 years and isn’t interested in finding a cure. He’s also offering one kidney in exchange for a Cypress Point tee time (serious inquiries only).