Recently, Harold Varner III, one of only two African American men currently playing professional golf full-time on the PGA Tour, staked his claim for the most memorable golf shot of 2022 when he sunk an incredible, 90-foot walk-off eagle putt to win the Saudi Invitational. The viral victory was by far the biggest of Varner’s career, earning him a million-dollar payday, his highest ever world ranking (45th), and an excellent chance to qualify for his first Masters tournament in April.
On a broader level, Varner’s victory is equally important for a black golfing community eager to see more African American pros succeed at the highest levels of the game. For a black golfer not named Tiger Woods to win such a big event on a global stage against one of golf’s strongest fields makes people take notice. Yet we also shouldn’t forget that if the PGA Tour had gotten its way, Varner’s career-altering, highlight-reel moment never would have even happened.
Several months ago, the PGA Tour, which oversees professional tournament golf in the United States, threatened to fine or even ban Varner and other golf superstars if they played in the Saudi International, an Asian Tour event that took place the same week as the PGA Tour’s annual tournament at Pebble Beach. The pushback from pro golfers, who are independent contractors, was nearly unanimous, with stars like Rory McIlroy arguing that players should be able to compete in any event they chose without the threat of repercussions from the PGA Tour. Ultimately, the PGA Tour backed down and granted one-time conditional waivers for Varner and roughly two-dozen other top players that allowed them to play in the tournament.
Casual sports fans may wonder why the PGA Tour would care if some of their players went oversees to showcase their talents on an international stage. Afterall, you’d think the PGA Tour’s primary goal would be to grow the game of golf. In fact, the Tour enjoys tax-exempt, non-profit status with the IRS for that exact purpose; to “promote the sport of professional golf and the common interests of touring golf professionals.” I don’t know about you, but I would think offering players the opportunity to play in two tournaments offering million-dollar winners checks the same week would be a good way to promote the interests of professional golfers by giving them even more earning opportunities.
Clearly the PGA Tour doesn’t agree. It has become apparent that the most prominent face of professional golf in the United States is more concerned with defending its turf and pursuing its own monopolistic agenda than providing more playing opportunities for players like Varner to earn a living.
This type of infighting is also harmful to fans and newcomers to the game. Casual sports fans and occasional golf viewers don’t want to hear about player fines and bans, and beyond not bringing viewers to TV broadcasts, the Tour’s behavior certainly doesn’t encourage people to go to their local driving range, Top Golf, or municipal golf course for the first time.
Even the PGA Tour can’t possibly deny that Harold Varner’s victory at the Saudi International is good for golf. It gives Varner, by all accounts a popular player on Tour, a signature, life-altering victory for a rising African American star that the game desperately needs. It gives the sport a rare, buzzworthy, highlight-reel moment that was being talked about as much on CNN as it was on ESPN. And it gives golf fans, and especially new fans, reason to tune in, pick up a club, and maybe just pick up the game. All things the PGA Tour should be encouraging and welcoming, not trying to stifle through the threat of anti-competitive behavior.
Odis Griffin is an amateur golfer and co-founder of The Black Golf Alliance, LLC.