IRVING, Texas – There’s an old saying that states, “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.” Nice sentiment, but if we want this to translate into modern-day analysis of professional golfers, it needs some amendments.
Instead, try: “Before you criticize someone, you should fly a few hundred thousand miles in their soft spikes.”
It’s easy to examine a high-profile player who eschews a high-profile tournament and come to the conclusion that he should – no, he needs to –compete in that event. Think Phil Mickelson and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship or Bubba Watson and The Players Championship.
Each received his fair share of criticism for skipping those events, even though they both chose to spend the week in question with family instead of teeing it up.
The underlying problem is a Catch 22 for the game’s elite players. Reach a certain level and you’ll qualify for more tournaments. Play those tournaments and your status increases. Your status increases and more events will be vying for your presence. More events vie for your presence and more will be disappointed when you choose to spend time away from competition.
Quite simply, if you look closely enough and you’ll find a reason why every single player should tee it up every single week – which sounds like a beautiful concept in PGA Tour Utopia, but doesn’t fly in the real world of independent contractors.
In past years, the result has often been a PGA Tour schedule – and to a lesser degree, schedules on other international circuits – that is comprised of the haves and have-nots. More and more, though, those lines are blurring, with players electing to compete at certain tournaments based on venue, placement on the schedule and, of course, sponsorship tie-ins as opposed to perceived stature of the event itself.
“It's very difficult because every week there is a great tournament on,” Adam Scott explained. “It's hard sometimes to sit at home and see guys go at it, and you're at home practicing, passing up the chance.”
When it comes to specific players joining the field at certain events, sometimes it’s better for those tournaments to be lucky than good.
This week’s Byron Nelson Championship is a perfect example.
In the year of what would have been Lord Byron’s 100th birthday, the tournament is enjoying a power surge within its field. After multi-year absences, Scott, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson each chose to play here for different yet similar reasons.
“I've always loved this tournament; I love what the Nelson family has done,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the last few years it's been a scheduling thing.”
“Because of that tournament in England that had the same damn date for so many years – and we redesigned the course, so I had a commitment to go there,” Els explained. “But I always wanted to come back here, and now that they changed the date in England, I'm grateful for that.”
“Obviously, it's a date change, I believe – this year the two Texas ones switched,” Scott said. “Last year, I played Players, Colonial; this year I'm playing Players and here. It's a nice couple of weeks for me, where I want to play and hopefully build some momentum heading into the summer of golf really.”
Once again, it’s difficult to chastise high-level players for skipping tournaments. Just as a doctor or lawyer may work hard to reach a certain status – say, opening a practice whereupon one can be his own boss – one of the benefits reaped from such work in golf is the ability to call your own shots.
If that criticism does exist, though, then praise should likewise be lauded on top players for decided to compete in these events. Even those with a legitimate get-out-of-jail-free card – like winning the previous tournament – should be saluted for being beholden to the previous commitment.
“This is about the only scenario that I think you could throw a little bit of a wrench on it with a win of this kind of a magnitude,” said Matt Kuchar, who won last week’s Players Championship. “But for me, knowing that the U.S. Open is on the horizon and spending time with [instructor] Chris [O’Connell] is great.”
For an elite player, choosing a schedule is never an easy proposition, much like a hungry linebacker picking his way through a buffet. Until you fly in his soft spikes, though, it’s impossible to criticize for specific decisions.