By Gabe Swartz
PHOENIX – Whether it was incidental or an act of bad faith, the PGA Tour’s rollout and introduction of the Player Impact Program just over a year ago was widely regarded as less than stellar. No organic announcement of what is now commonly referred to as the “PIP” came from the organization. Instead, Golfweek broke the news and tour officials later confirmed it.
Early on, poor communication led some to believe the program – which distributed $40 million to 10 players for 2021 – was designed to reward players who were most active on social media, growing the game through retweets and likes rather than birdies and eagles. Putting the reading comprehension skills that earned him a degree from the University of California to use, four-time PGA Tour winner Max Homa figured out swiftly that any cash distributed would be a reward beyond who best utilized 280 characters.
“It’s funny because it was kind of framed as a social media contest, but when you read about it, it was a lot more,” Homa, a frequent main character on Golf Twitter, told Cronkite News. “There was an aspect that would be social media, but I kind of got the gist that it would be for the 10 best and most popular players.
“Whenever there’s a contest where they are giving away $40 million, I don’t think that’s aimed at someone who is in my spot at the moment. That would obviously be outrageous and make no sense, but we can still use it to have fun.”
In the creation of the program, a group of third-party data metric services employed by the PGA Tour were tasked with evaluating players by five metrics. Those include:
- Internet searches: the number of times a player is searched on the internet.
- Earned media: the number of individual articles mention a player’s name.
- Social media: a score based on a player’s social reach and engagement metrics.
- TV sponsor exposure: amount of time a player’s sponsor logos appear on TV during a PGA Tour broadcast.
- Awareness: a score among the broad general population of a player’s general awareness.
Equipped with an understanding of the program’s likely outcome, Homa and others on Tour began using social media “pretty much right away” to make jokes about the program. When the PGA Tour Twitter account shared a video of a Homa tee shot during the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, the former national champion at Cal quipped back with a PIP-inspired joke.
“Plz @ me next time so I can finish in the top 20 of the PIP this year thx”
“Everyone was tagging me in it saying I’m going to win the thing, and I knew immediately that I was not,” Homa, the 28th-ranked player in the world, said with a laugh. “It became pretty obvious that I was going to be able to at the very least use it to have a lot of fun.”
Homa and PGA Tour professional Joel Dahmen began a fictional online feud which received a fraction of the coverage – but nearly equal amount of tweets from the participants – of the public spat between four-time major champion Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
“I love it,” said Colt Knost, the co-host of Golf’s Subpar podcast, of Homa and Dahmen’s online bit. “I like when they pick on each other. It’s fun banter, which is great for the game. We need more of that. We need these guys to show their personalities.”
At each weekly PGA Tour event, broadcast partners display the Comcast Business Tour Top 10, representing the top of the standings for the season-long FedEx Cup race. That list culminates in a winner at the Tour Championship and a $15 million payout at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. While any golf fan can check the FedEx Cup leaderboard and find Homa currently in 20th place, they can’t do the same for the PIP.
“The Player Impact Program was developed and devised by the membership,” said Dan Glod, PGA Tour’s Senior Vice President of Player Partnerships. “What was determined is we would create the Player Impact Program and we would track the five metrics, but this wouldn’t be something like our FedEx Cup where we’re updating it every month or every week. That was never the intention.”
In early March, a memo was released outlining the finalized Top 10 for the 2021 year. Atop the final standings as the winner of the $8 million first place prize was Tiger Woods, who did not play in any PGA Tour events while he recovered from a horrific car crash. Second place went to Phil Mickelson, who in May 2021 won the PGA Championship and became the oldest major winner at 50 years old.
“We know in any given year there may only be 20 guys on the PGA Tour who are going to have a real good shot at it,” Glod said. “So certainly, those players and even beyond that were inquiring and just curious, like ‘Hey, where do I stand?’ For roughly those 20-ish players, we were having pretty regular conversations with them. The Player Impact Program, like everything on Tour, you earn it. It’s not like somebody in a conference room is just making a decision. We use intentionally five independent sources to create this program.”
To many, the Player Impact Program was and is a direct response to proposed breakaway tours like the LIV Golf Investment Series, a league backed by Saudi government investors which critics believe is aimed to sportswash the country’s human rights abuses in the name of generating greater tourism opportunities. It has made attempts to lure players with guaranteed money and lucrative appearance fees, something that is not allowed on the PGA Tour.
The figurative visual of handing $6 million to Mickelson while he dips his toes into another tour isn’t too dissimilar to a parent upping a child’s allowance money after a particularly embarrassing public tantrum. In February, the former ASU golfer announced he’d be taking an absence from the PGA Tour that included missing the Masters, an event he’d called his “favorite week of the year,” in multiple instances previously.
Mickelson’s exclusion from the field came after comments describing the Saudi regime as “scary motherf—— to get involved with,” became public. In an excerpt from Alan Shipnuck’s unauthorized biography of Mickelson, the six-time major winner called the Saudi league a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
On April 25, Mickelson’s agent, Steve Loy, released a statement detailing some of Mickelson’s updated plans. Citing “no concrete plans” in the statement, Mickelson submitted applications to defend his PGA Championship crown in May and play in the U.S. Open in June. On May 13, the PGA Championship released a statement announcing that Mickelson had withdrawn from the event and would not defend his crown at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mickelson also requested a release from the PGA Tour for June 9-11 that would allow him to play in the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event.
“We joke about how at this point it has become a ridiculous program just because the guy who won it last year has been in the news for some pretty not great things toward the PGA Tour,” Homa said, prior to the final standings announcement, of conversations he had with friends on Tour.
In December, Mickelson boasted that he’d taken the top spot, which later proved to be incorrect.
“That’s just ironic,” Homa said while laughing, continuing to emphasize his lack of understanding for both the PIP Program and the developments with the LIV Golf Series. “We’re sitting here trying to boost the PGA Tour and then the guy who just got paid millions of dollars from it is not, so we’re just wondering about the validity to this program.”
“It’s obviously a popularity contest mixed with a little bit of golf,” said Homa, who has nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter. “It’s fun to talk about because we can laugh about the absurdity of it, plus the fact that none of us know where we are in the rankings throughout the year.”
In 2022, the program’s bonus pool will increase by $10 million, going to $50 million total as the first place prize increases by $2 million. Prior to the Genesis Invitational in February, the third and fourth ranked players in the world golf rankings spoke out against the program. Two-time major champion Collin Morikawa – who reportedly finished 11th in the 2021 standings – said there were “probably better routes” to distributing millions, while admitting that needle-movers for the Tour needed to be rewarded in some way. Patrick Cantlay called himself old school.
“I think the money should be doled out according to play,” Cantlay said.
Before the Masters got underway in April, world No. 2 and reigning U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm shared his thoughts on this year’s PIP race with Woods returning for his first appearance in a professional tournament since he played in the Masters in November 2020.
“The one thing we all know for sure is in three days out here Tiger’s going to win the PIP for sure,” said Rahm, who reportedly finished ninth in the PIP and earned $3 million for doing so in 2021. “I think that’s the biggest impact for all of us. We’re all playing for No. 2 right now.”
Iconic moments have been no stranger to the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale during the WM Phoenix Open and this February’s tournament was no exception. It provided the backdrop during Saturday’s third round for Homa, a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan, to pay off a bet with fellow PGA pro J.T. Poston by wearing an Atlanta Braves jersey. When Harry Higgs and Joel Dahmen made their Sunday saunter into the stadium scene surrounding the 16th, a lengthy par putt from Higgs fell into the cup and brought a shirts-off show from the two pros.
None of that compared to the two aces made at 16 from Sam Ryder and Carlos Ortiz and the beer showers that followed. The buzz on social media nearly equated to the buzz of those in the stands, as beer doused the 16th green on frequent occasions and the PGA Tour made a significant social media stand on Super Bowl weekend.
“It was an unbelievable event as it always is,” Glod said. “That event happened during Super Bowl week and the Olympics, and the PGA Tour was not in just traditional golf media outlets. That speaks to the impact that event has.”
While Homa is willing to admit that his current status on Tour isn’t worthy of warranting serious consideration for the top 10 of the PIP standings, he still remains frustrated by some of the system’s issues. During the Phoenix Open, Homa was two shots back of the lead and tied for third place during Saturday’s third round. Still, he was more noticeably featured during commercial breaks in a Titleist ad than during the live golf action.
“It is honestly getting old,” Homa said of not being shown on TV coverage while in contention. “Typically, I wouldn’t care. It doesn’t affect – or I didn’t think it affected me – and obviously it’s not affecting what place I finish or anything like that, but as I’m getting a shade more opportunities and a bit more popularity from everything I get a lot of DMs or my family will say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t see you all day,’ and it’s kind of odd.”
Because TV sponsor exposure makes up 20 percent of the calculation for the PIP, a lack of exposure during a week like the Phoenix Open for players like Homa is damaging.
“Now that I know that there is something like the PIP out there, I would like some more coverage if I’m playing well,” said Homa, who finished in a tie for 14th at TPC Scottsdale. “Obviously, I have to earn it, but I played well and I got all kinds of messages about how they didn’t show it. I still get called the Twitter golfer all the time – which is fine – but it would help that go away if when I’m playing well at a tournament that I’m defending at or a tournament where I live in that town that I could get a bit more TV time.”
Throughout this PGA Tour season, Netflix cameras have followed an assortment of players around, gathering stories for a series similar to “Drive to Survive,” which helped expand the audience of Formula One. Glod said the show is aimed to reach a new or casual golf fanbase while teaching hardcore fans more about their favorite players. Scottie Scheffler won for the first time in Phoenix, opening a stretch of four wins in six starts en route to the world No. 1 ranking. It remains possible the series – which Netflix has full editorial control over – could impact next year’s PIP race, and help Scheffler’s growing star rise after emerging in the desert.
“When that show comes out you’ll see our players in a different light,” Glod said.
Golf.com reported in January an original cast list that included 22 players – with many ranking in the top 20 in the world. It’s been reported since that others have joined in during filming.
“We get to see all these cool and distinct personalities,” Glod said. “That’s all going to come out. That’s very exciting for us.”
At some point in the Netflix show, which followed Homa around as he defended his crown this February at the Genesis Invitational, the cameras will shine light on the former NCAA champion and now four-time winner on Tour. While he’s quick to be self-deprecating and comfortable playing along with the missed cut jokes that frequent his appearances on Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take” podcast, Homa’s game has improved considerably since a 2017 season that saw him make two cuts in 17 starts and tally $18,008 in total on-course earnings.
Following his fourth career win – and second at the Wells Fargo Championship – Homa’s strokes gained ball-striking stats have him as one of the 10 best in the world. With the PGA Championship beginning Thursday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the question ‘Why hasn’t Homa contended in majors?’ (he’s never finished better than a tie for 40th) is more apt than ‘Will he be in the field?’
As the PIP progresses and the pot distributed to the Tour’s biggest stars continues to grow, Homa and other players hope there is an increase in clarity.
“If they continue this, I hope they do something more transparent,” Homa said. “Maybe they’ll do something more understandable. I would prefer if it was just, ‘Here’s your money. You guys are the most important people to the Tour. Move along.’ If they are going to do the PIP thing, at least give us an update every quarter letting us know where we stand.”
Homa is currently No. 6 in the current FedEx Cup standings and, of course, TBD on the PIP standings. But now one of golf’s most likable figures’ ponderings about the PIP program are more pertinent to his checkbook than ever before.
“It’s $40 million and $8 million for first place. It feels like we should know if we’re close. That doesn’t seem like a big ask. It’s hard to wrap my mind around something for that much cash that no one really knows how it worked out except the top 10 guys. That’s very bizarre.”