Column: Questions To Contemplate For A New Year On PGA Tour

Of the two clear signs the PGA Tour is about to embark on a new year at Kapalua, one is obvious: The magnificent view from the first tee of an 80-yard fairway that seemingly drops into the Pacific Ocean.

The other is more bizarre: Jon Rahm sightings.

Rahm is the defending champion at The Sentry, except that all he has been defending of late is his decision to defect to Saudi-funded LIV Golf. The total compensation is probably in the neighborhood of the entire PGA Tour prize fund for the FedEx Cup season ($402.4 million, not including the majors).

There has been chatter about his vacation suite at Kapalua and one confirmed sighting of the Masters champion at a high-end resort up the coast at Makena.

Such beautiful vistas, such a fractured landscape in golf, with no end in sight.

The previous year began with LIV adding players that only ardent golf fans would recognize. Six months later came the shocking announcement of the PGA Tour’s agreement to become commercial partners with the Saudi backer of LIV Golf, contingent on finalizing the deal by the end of the year.

Seven hours before the year ended, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan told players in a memo that there was no deal yet, only progress. Slow play strikes again.

So the new year has the feel of the old one, except on Thursday. The Sentry has ditched the second part of its title name — Tournament of Champions — because the winners-only field now includes anyone who finished in the top 50 in the FedEx Cup.

The only player missing is Rory McIlroy — and Rahm, who has been suspended.

What to expect for 2024? Here are questions to contemplate:

The Saudi Deal

Whatever defines progress was slowed by Commissioner Jay Monahan taking a month away to cope with exhaustion, congressional inquiries and private equity groups wanting a piece of the action. The PGA Tour settled on Strategic Sports Group, and Monahan suggested a deal with SSG was farther along than anything with the Public Investment Fund.

Monahan also mentioned SSG, PIF and the European tour as minority co-investors. Golf Digest reported any agreement ideally would be completed by The Players Championship in March. There is no hard deadline, and it turns out Dec. 31 was just a date on a piece of paper.

Regardless of valuations and contributions by “minority co-investors,” the biggest question is the future of LIV Golf and how and when — or if — the best players will be competing against each other outside the majors.

Finding a fair way to integrate is one thing. Rewarding the players who remained loyal to the tours would seem to be far more complicated.

Who’s Next To Leave?

Still to be confirmed is whether Rahm gets his own LIV team, and there are still moving parts among the 12 existing teams. Either way, the year starts high on speculation about who will be the next to defect to LIV. Brooks Koepka leaving in 2022 and Rahm leaving in December should make it clear that no departure should be a surprise. Everyone has a number.

Who will be the next Adam Schenk?

Schenk had never finished higher than No. 71 in the FedEx Cup in his five years on the PGA Tour. He had played in only two majors. He started the season at No. 176 in the world.

That adage about playing better? That applies to Schenk.

He was runner-up twice, including a playoff loss at Colonial. He played his way into three majors. He not only qualified for the Tour Championship, he was in contention going into the second round at East Lake.

He finished the year just short of $5 million, more than his previous five seasons combined. He is in all the signature events this year, along with all the majors.

For players who are not in the signature events, who feel as though there is now a separate tour for the elite, they should use Schenk as inspiration. That could be them.

Who will be the next Justin Thomas?

Thomas is the best example that even elite players have to earn it. He didn’t in 2023, missing out on the postseason for the first time.

He will not be suffering because of his star power. Thomas earned that from winning two majors, a FedEx Cup and three money titles. Sponsor exemptions to the signature events will not be hard to find if he needs them.

That player a few years back was Rickie Fowler. Before him was Jordan Spieth.

Who makes it to Paris for the Olympics?

The toughest squad to make in golf is the U.S. Olympic team, even if it’s not a team event. Only four players from the top 15 in the world can go to Paris for the Summer Olympics. Going into the year, eight Americans are among the top 15.

Xander Schauffele is one of them. He won the gold medal in Tokyo and the first step is simply getting a shot at any medal. Justin Rose won the gold in Rio de Janeiro and didn’t make it back to the next Olympics.

It gets even more complicated with international players, particularly the likes of Cameron Smith of Australia, Joaquin Niemann of Chile and Thomas Pieters of Belgium. Olympic qualifying is based strictly on the world ranking, and LIV doesn’t get points for that. Their only chance at points is the majors, if they are even eligible for them.

Who will caddie for Tiger Woods?

Woods gave his blessing to Joe LaCava, his caddie since late 2011, to work for Patrick Cantlay when Woods had ankle fusion surgery in April and his future was murky as ever.

Woods is optimistic that he can play once a month, starting in February, through the majors. Rob McNamara, a longtime business associate and a second set of eyes for his swing, worked at the Hero World Challenge and is a likely candidate for Riviera.

Woods has used an Augusta National caddie for pre-Masters practice rounds. That’s an option.

And then there’s his son, 14-year-old Charlie. He’s strong enough and could be an interesting choice for the U.S. Open and British Open (he might not be out of school in time for the PGA Championship).

For regular caddies, John Wood left caddying to be an on-course analyst for NBC and Golf Channel. He is tight with Woods, knows his game and could be an option for tournaments that CBS broadcasts.