Most PGA Tour events are actually two tournaments in one: the 36-hole qualifier on Thursday and Friday, followed by weekends featuring network television coverage and prize money deep into the millions. Those gigantic purses wouldn’t exist without the vast reach of TV. An overwhelming majority of golf fans watch the game from home instead of purchasing a ticket and traveling to the site, which makes CBS and NBC far more important to the product’s welfare than any particular player.
Only one man could possibly contest such an appraisal. He shattered his right leg in February.
Whereas the first two rounds offer a rapid-fire succession of golf shots to viewers, Saturday and Sunday take on a very different dimension. The focus shifts to those atop the leaderboard. A guy in serious contention can accumulate an hour or two of actual airtime, and since golfers don’t wear helmets, their facial expressions and body language — and pace of play — become an indelible part of the telecast.
As a disparate audience, we draw conclusions. Form opinions. Make generalizations. We pass judgment on tour pros because visual access is immense. Because some players are easier to like than others, whether that appeal comes from a swing full of power and grace, an everlasting smile, some crowd interaction or a simple appreciation for one’s intense determination.
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No other sport connects the guy on the couch to the competitor’s emotions quite like golf. With some invaluable help from a half-dozen pairs of eyeballs and my own marginal sense of perspective, what follows is an assessment of nine marquee players, each of whom has been assigned a “watchability” rating. Using the Bo Derek scale (10 for best, 1 for worst), our subjects are graded for their on-course deportment and assorted observational factors that add to (or detract from) the viewing experience.
This is not a ranking. Just a subjective look at the men who make the game so interesting.
Rory McIlroy — 9 out of 10
The victory in Vegas last weekend makes Northern Ireland’s finest the perfect leadoff hitter. McIlroy is probably the fastest player among those in the game’s top tier. He makes some ridiculous course-management decisions at times, but that’s not a negative. When things are going well, he jaunts down the fairway like a 9-year-old kid. When they’re not, he wears it on his face like few others. Sadness, not anger. He is incapable of gloating or showboating. Polite but outspoken. Two steps above gifted but flawed beyond explanation. A wonderful asset to the game, a lot of fun to watch.
Patrick Cantlay— 6 out of 10
His businesslike approach obviously paid off handsomely in 2021, although I prefer the fiery, fist-pumping version of Cantlay we saw at the Ryder Cup. He is unabashedly slow on the greens, and that shuffle of his feet over a putt can leave a fella feeling seasick, but he holes so many bombs that you feel thankful he won’t need another 90 seconds to knock in the next one.
Jordan Spieth — 5 out of 10
He talks to his golf ball more than he talks to his wife, or anyone else, for that matter, usually while it’s in the air and often when it’s headed in the wrong direction. Tiger Woods has been found guilty of the same crime, but his ball rarely disobeyed his command. Spieth is probably the most verbally animated player on the Tour, which certainly can grate on a viewer’s nerves after a while. That said, his short game alone is reason enough to turn on the telly.
Tyrrell Hatton— 8.5 out of 10
When Sergio Garcia gets angry, his behavior is considered petulant, mainly because it is. Hatton’s temperamental outbursts qualify as an amusing form of self-abuse. He becomes so unhappy with himself that he appears ready to quit the game, then makes three consecutive birdies and breaks out the most apologetic grin known to golfkind. If England’s most tenacious grinder ever takes to fatherhood, you can bet your life his kids will behave themselves when daddy’s home.
Bubba Watson — 3 out of 10
You don’t need a degree in psychology to know how Bubba’s day is going. When he’s missing putts, which isn’t all that uncommon, Watson’s dramatic reactions come with a level of authenticity that would have inspired Sir Laurence Olivier. Astonishment. Bewilderment. Injustice. Watson’s collection of grim faces are the stuff of a thousand conspiracies, but the big fella can still shape his ball like nobody’s business. Don’t cry for Bubba. He’ll probably miss one from the same distance on the next hole.
Louis Oosthuizen — 8 out of 10
Beyond owning the smoothest move in every town he visits, the gentle South African has taken his close-but-no-cigar status like a man. And thank goodness, because his career of late has been plagued by a severe stogie shortage. He’ll never be a fan favorite because he doesn’t do cartwheels after making a 15-footer and he doesn’t win tournaments — he’s still 0-for-America — but Oostie is an under appreciated, overlooked commodity from a country that hasn’t exactly been burning up the world stage in recent years. Think of him as the anti-Bubba.
Bryson DeChambeau — 1 on some days, 10 on others
Oh, where do we start? He drives it 380 yards without tearing a pectoral muscle, blames everyone but himself when things go wrong, says some of the dumbest things since Jethro Bodine but still carries himself like the smartest guy in every room he enters. Not for nothing, DeChambeau is also the only active golfer who truly moves the needle—a guy capable of adding 5,000 spectators on any given week or boosting the Tour’s rigid TV ratings. Love him or loathe him, he’s a man of impact. People can’t take their eyes off him.
Justin Thomas— 3 out of 10
Clearly one of the game’s most talented players, Thomas can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. He has won some big tournaments but has taken himself out of others with an allergy to adversity that seems to grow more acute each year. The woe-is-me thing simply doesn’t work at the game’s highest level. He’s a handful and a half when everything’s working, but a lot of bad things happen on a golf course. You deal with them. If JT possessed the inner fight that drives his close buddy Spieth, he’d win six times a year.
Jon Rahm — 9 out of 10
While we’re on the subject of disposition makeovers, let us pay tribute to the year’s most successful competitive lobotomy. Rahm might not have won the U.S. Open if he hadn’t diverted from his hotheaded ways, a change brought on by the birth of his first child and the COVID-19/forced withdrawal that cost him the Memorial, but it’s hard to envision a dude with such a short fuse emerging triumphant at golf’s ultimate battle of attrition. He has always been a big boy physically, but in 2021, Rahm added another 20 pounds of emotional muscle.
He is bright, exceptionally well-spoken and clearly thankful for the opportunity life has given him. Americans have always been hesitant to embrace foreign golfers as one of their own. Rahm is on a brisk pace to become the most popular international player of all-time.