These days it’s almost impossible to scroll by insipid influencers without crashing into some pearl-clutcher’s pieties about how golf fans are being driven from the sport. Apparently, the masses are angrily rending polo shirts as they mourn a once-noble game that has been lost to the relentless rise of dollars, division and douchebaggery.
Perhaps there is a more palpable air of melancholy surrounding golf — or at least the men’s professional corner of it — but as with most assertions peddled on social media, the notion that fans are drifting away in droves seems more anecdotal than evidential. Many of those who claim to have disengaged continue to comment on golf’s every storyline in the manner of those who are, well, enthusiastically engaged. There are plenty of folks who find the current state of affairs disheartening and are eager to scold those they hold responsible — chiefly greedy players, incompetent executives, shilling media and, occasionally, moneyed human rights abusers.
But leavin’ they ain’t.
Take last week’s Sentry tournament in Maui. The full event broadcast of Chris Kirk’s victory averaged only 4,000 viewers fewer than Jon Rahm’s in ’23 despite the obvious disparity in star power atop the leaderboard. Ratings were the second-best since 2017 while weekend network coverage was a tiny notch higher than last year. Viewership of last fall’s slate of PGA Tour events — presumed doomed by the general absence of stars — showed negligible difference year on year. Small samples for sure, but it makes one ponder a point made Tuesday by Tour veteran Paul Goydos on Golf Today, that there’s a tendency to overstate the importance of individual golfers while underestimating the resiliency of the collective golf product. Or, in layman’s terms, everyone is replaceable, and often forgotten.
Still, the PGA Tour’s product has been undeniably weakened by the defection of a handful of meaningful players, and even loyal fans might be ambivalent on the subsequent contortions the Tour made to maintain the loyalty of others. The myriad issues roiling the sport will get messier yet, but the opening fortnight of the ’24 season has at least proved to even the most disgruntled fans that there are guys worth rooting for. One of them leaves Hawaii with a trophy, the other with something much more precious.
Chris Kirk’s lows are well documented — battles with alcoholism and depression that forced him to take a leave of absence in 2019 — and earn a rote retelling with his every high, including wins at last year’s Honda Classic and this month’s Sentry. He’s fine with that, knowing his successes might offer an example that turnarounds are possible to others struggling with similar problems. Kirk’s commendable openness about his journey has made the personal parabolic.
Chris Kirk celebrates with the trophy after winning the 2024 Sentry at Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The same holds true for Gary Woodland, who returned to the Tour this week at the Sony Open after undergoing surgery in September to remove a lesion from his brain. In his media comments, Woodland provided a glimpse of just how dark those days were. He spoke of a leaden fear of death that shadowed his every waking moment, of being too scared to travel without his wife because he was afraid the end lurked around every corner. That he was able to function, much less compete, after the diagnosis is impressive, and his willingness to detail the oppressive emotional trauma even moreso.
Woodland is widely regarded as one of the more amiable, everyday guys in a sport where self-absorption and entitlement have run amok. He’s still fiercely competitive, so he’ll pour over statistics from Hawaii to analyze what needs work. But the metric that mattered most won’t be found on a spreadsheet accounting for his week at Waialae Country Club. Woodland’s candor in revealing what he went through — not so much physically as psychologically — made him the undisputed winner of the week, regardless of who gets the trophy. “It’s been a hard time for me and I was able to overcome it,” he said after missing the cut, his voice catching with emotion. “I’ll be back. There was a time when I didn’t know if this was going to be possible.”
Coverage of professional golf has tended toward mawkish sentimentality since Young Tom Morris lost his wife while playing an event in 1875 and shortly thereafter died himself at age 24, of a broken heart, it’s often said (it was actually a pulmonary hemorrhage). The penchant for narratives that tug heartstrings notwithstanding, the last few months have gifted fans numerous opportunities to celebrate examples of character that seem less apparent than ever in this sport.
Kirk and Woodland are two. Camilo Villegas is another, long absent from the winner’s circle but improbably back now three years after losing his daughter Mia to brain cancer. And Erik van Rooyen, who won and on the final green wept openly for an ailing friend, who died a few days later. The themes common in these stories—adversity, resilience, loss, triumph—are the very DNA of sport, of life itself.
‘Perspective’ has become the cheapest word in golf’s lexicon, too often deployed in the context of an inconvenient break between the ropes. When we see the real thing, in real life, it ought to be acknowledged and applauded. Golf fans might justifiably feel that chances to do so are fewer when so much of the conversation is marred by money and selfishness. As the Tour leaves Hawaii, Kirk and Woodland have illustrated the truth in author Brené Brown’s oft-shared maxim, that what separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude. May we see more of their kind.