[PHOTO: Jared C. Tilton]

The PGA Tour and its constituents know the league has lost its way, although just as important is recognising what brought them here in the first place. In Rory McIlroy’s opinion, that starts with questioning who’s behind the wheel.

McIlroy has spent the better part of the past two years guiding the tour to a place he believes is true, and has consistently spoken about the need to make the product better for fans. One of the avenues the tour has taken is the implementation of the signature series, an effort to get the best players competing against each other on a more regular basis. Within the tour’s membership, however, reception to the elevated events has been mixed, with many of the rank-and-file expressing concern that their way of living has been threatened with the perceived pampering towards the best players.

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For his part, McIlroy has been in favour of limiting these fields, remarking at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational that he wished the tour was more cut-throat from a competition standpoint. But McIlroy is also cognisant of the pushback his opinions have received, and spoke overnight (Australian time) ahead of the Players Championship about that pushback and the cause of it.

“I think when you’ve got a members’ organisation that’s been in existence for 60 or 70 years, and the first mantra of that organisation is playing opportunities, whenever people are perceived to have playing opportunities taken away from them, they’re not going to like it,” McIlroy said. “I can understand that, absolutely. I think it’s just the tour has been a certain way for so long, but I also think that the tour hasn’t necessarily evolved with the changing times to make it a more compelling entertainment product and sort of trying to fit in with the sort of modern media and sports landscape.”

McIlroy admitted some of the blame lies at his feet, saying the group of top players that met in Delaware during the 2022 FedEx Cup Playoffs – a group that helped restructure the tour to its current iteration – may have held the tour “for ransom” with some of their requests. Conversely, as McIlroy noted, the changes were well received by most golf fans at first.

“They really worked last year,” McIlroy said. “If you look at the leaderboards, you look at the ratings, I felt like they really, really worked in 2023, and for whatever reason, they’re not quite capturing the imagination this year compared to last year.”

McIlroy said the next steps in golf’s fan-driven evolution is to improve the on-site experience, a matter the Ulsterman said the tour’s new partners, the Strategic Sports Group, is tackling. But when questioned if that onus falls on players rather than the tour and its leadership, McIlroy replied that’s exactly part of professional golf’s issue.

“To me, like this is the problem with a members’ organisation: things are created for the members,” McIlroy said. “Then once those things are created, you’ve got to go sell those things to fans, sponsors, media. To me, that seems a little backwards.

“I think what needs to happen is you need to create things for the fans, for the sponsors, for the media, and then you have to go sell that to the players, tell them to get on board with that, because if they get on board and we’re all part of the business now, if the business does better, we do better. That seems pretty simple to me.”

As for what also might help that reversal, McIlroy discussed the need to re-evaluate what constitutes tour membership. Essentially, that a player’s merit has to be continually proved, allowing for more promotion, and relegation, at the sport’s top level.

“I think the more churn, the better. I said last week, this is supposed to be the most competitive golf tour in the world, and I think you should need to have to prove yourself over and over again,” McIlroy said. “You look at – I don’t want to take from other sports, but you look at tennis, for example, they have a one-year rolling ranking, not a two-year rolling ranking like we have in the OWGR, and I think it just – it incentivises the players not to get complacent, basically, and I think that’s really what I’m trying to talk about.

“I’m all for giving the young guys opportunities. Like, I think there should be more opportunities for PGA Tour U. I think there should be more opportunities for the Korn Ferry guys. It’s the guys that get on tour, get comfortable and don’t really – that’s where I think that the tour could do a better job of bringing the new talent in and sort of having these steady pipelines.”

McIlroy, who won the Players in 2019, tees off in round one at 8:35am, Florida time, with Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland.