Does Hosung Choi deserve a spot in a PGA Tour event?

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Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Rory McIlroy has suggested that giving a sponsor’s exemption to 45-year old South Korean golfer Hosung Choi for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am is taking a spot away from a more deserving PGA Tour player. Choi is ranked 196th in the world and is known for his exuberant swing theatrics. Is McIlroy correct?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Even though some sponsor decisions are questionable (like this one), I don’t think the players really have any right to question what a sponsor wishes to do, at least as it applies to exemptions.  It’s their money, and their event, why shouldn’t they invite whoever the heck they want to?  If Choi is ranked 196th, is the public really going to give a hoot if, say, number 154 isn’t invited?  Bottom line: stick to your knitting, Rory.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): Well Rory doesn’t understand the mighty dollar, nor entertainment. Pretty certain money talks, and if the Tour wants to grant an exemption to another world ranked player who is perfectly capable of playing at the PGA Tour level, well then suck it up buttercup. Choi is entertaining. I watched him play a few holes and he CAN PLAY. I marvel at his talent. I have no idea how he does it, but he gives hope to every average golfer on the planet. I’ll be watching Choi hit a giant banana slice off the 18th tee at Pebble, while using more body English than a bobble head on the dash of a Monster Truck. CHOI CHOI CHOI….

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Life Member, PGA of Canada: When we were kids mimicking golfers and being silly, inevitably one of us swung like Choi. It is absolutely bizarre to watch but does attract attention. Rory might ask the same question about Hunter Mahan who was #615 and Tom Lovelady who was #351 when they given sponsor exemptions into the Phoenix Open. Sponsors are provided with ‘tools’ to do anything they want to create ticket sales and Choi has proven himself as a tournament player by winning events. I’m opposed to players who have zero status on any male tour gaining those spots but at #196 Choi is legitimate. Perhaps Rory’s solution would be to restrict any sponsor exemption to a person who is outside the top 500 in the World Standings.

Dave Kaplan, Freelance Writer (@davykap): Technically, he is correct. There are only so many spots for players on the biggest stage in golf and Choi doesn’t deserve one on the merit of his resume alone. But the man’s unique swing, Type A personality and on-course theatrics make him a major draw for the tournament than any other potential candidate, and you simply cannot discount that. I scanned the list of players that rank 101st to 195th on the OWGR and none of them—not 140th-ranked Jhonattan Vegas or 166th-ranked Martin Kaymer or even 188th-ranked Corey Conners—is even one-tenth as interesting as Choi. In fact, the only reason I will be tuning in to the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in a few weeks is to watch Choi’s debut on North American soil. Otherwise, I’d probably spend the weekend catching up on TV.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I normally agree with Rory’s points of view, I think he has some great views on the game, but on this one I disagree.  Not saying that guys on tour don’t deserve chances to play in their tournaments but let’s face it, the game is for entertainment purposes and the idea is to attract more eyes to the game, and for the sponsor, it’s their job to invite players that will generate interest, and that’s what this guy will do.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: Damn straight, Rory’s right, and he has the voice of authority now that he’s playing on this Tour. But heck, the top three guys in the world are in the desert taking massive appearance fees from one of the world’s most popular dictatorships — the Saudis are in a tight race with Russia and N. Korea and China and Venezuela and a handful of African states — so they had to fill the field. But this is a misguided abuse of the exemption schtick. Some company on the AT&T sponsor list has something going on in Seoul. The Tour should have some oversight.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): Rory is way off base here. Choi is a legitimate player, not a circus act. He’ll add an entertainment factor that fans and sponsors will like, more so than one of the faceless automatons that dwell in the sub-basement of the Tour’s ranking system.

The Saudi International powered by SBIA is being played this week in Saudi Arabia and a number of top PGA Tour players including Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau are playing in it. Many people are suggesting that American players in particular should boycott the event to protest the killing of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October and the Saudi government’s abysmal record on human rights in general. Do you think professional athletes should take a stand on these things or just keep politics and sport separate?

Deeks: Considering the fact, or the assumption, that the Americans are being paid huge appearance fees just to show up, and personal income usually trumps bigger concerns, I can understand these guys making the “effort” to play. And if they refused on political grounds, who knows if they’d ever be invited again.  I also suspect that some of the four mentioned above might not even be aware of the Khashoggi murder or care a fig about it.  Philosophically, I’d love to say they should take a stand on moral issues, but where do you start and where do you stop?  So, the practical answer is, just keep politics and sport separate.

Loughry: Sport brings communities together. There are many instances where sport has been the vehicle for a political stance – remember Jesse Owens – but if you need a recent one how about Colin Kaepernick protesting during the US National Anthem? I do think athletes should make their own choices. They don’t have to grandstand when they do, on either side of a controversy.

Schurman: This is an awkward argument.  People who buy tickets come to watch a golf tournament or a Broadway show. Why should they be subjected to the personal opinion of someone who has developed their God-given skills? On the other hand, if we all sat on our hands waiting for appropriate moments nothing would ever change or improve. Humans don’t have a very strong record for making the best use of democracy. Being quiet has never been part of my MO.

Kaplan: Well, they SHOULD take a stance on these types of matters—and in a perfect world they would—but not every athlete has the convictions of a Colin Kaepernick or a Muhammad Ali. Money talks for most of these guys, and the prospect of turning down multi-million-dollar appearance fees for ethical reasons is the type of situation that us Joes will never be able to fully appreciate or understand. That being said, I didn’t hear too much outrage directed at the PGA Tour when it allowed former Pancasila Youth leader Japto Soerjosoemarno, who was responsible for the mass murder of millions of Indonesians in the country’s infamous 1965-66 genocide, participate in the pro am of its Desert Classic earlier this month . . .

Rule:  Money talks, and when big purses are up for grabs, athletes – for the most part – don’t care about politics.  It would be nice if all athletes cared about what goes on in the world outside of their sport, but I’m guessing the majority of them don’t.  I’m a bit torn on the whole subject, it’s not their responsibility to get involved in politics but they should be socially responsible.  So where do you draw the line on this one?

Quinn: When rogue states like the House of Saud, Russia and China are blatantly using sport for political reasons, there is no longer any separation. So, it is up to the athletes to either stand by their accountant or their conscience. The pronouncements by Koepka and Rose et al that it fits their schedule and they are just golfers not politicians is absolute and unadulterated B.S. They are citizens of the world, they are aware of what the hell is going on in these countries. And in grand self-condemnation, they are not in need of one penny of the lavish appearance fees. It’s gut turning. They should all have the moral compass of Paul Casey and they should have all turned up at Pebble Beach and donated the equivalent of the Saudis appearance fee to the charity of the Crosby family’s choice. It was guys like Bing Crosby who legitimized pro golf with his Clambake, and they wouldn’t be multi-millionaires without guys like him.

Mumford: If players boycotted every event where the government had a poor record on human rights, or the President / King was a tyrant, or the sponsor didn’t pay its workers a living wage or the owner was a crook …. well you can see where this is going. Projecting our political or moral views on to athletes is a cheap and easy outlet for our own passions but professional golfers aren’t our proxy for dissent. Heck, they may not even agree with us. Let’s support the occasional athlete that has the balls to speak out and try to make a difference but otherwise, best to keep sports and politics apart.

Apart from Tiger Woods, players aren’t generally talked about when they’re not playing. At the Farmers Insurance Open this past weekend, World #2 Brooks Koepka, #3 Dustin Johnson and #4 Justin Thomas took the week off and didn’t rate a peep from the TV broadcast crew. On the other hand, World #5 Bryson DeChambeau was talked about because he won the European Tour event in Abu Dhabi, he is leading the charge when it comes to putting with the flagstick in and he’s an incredibly methodical (insanely slow) player. DeChambeau generates interest all the time while the others only get noticed when they are winning. Can DeChambeau transcend the sport the same way Tiger did? If you were a sponsor, would he be the guy you put your money on?

Deeks: I’m not sure DeChambeau’s captured interest anywhere near the degree that Tiger did when he turned pro, and almost immediately turned the golf world upside down.  Yes, he’s quirky, and more interesting to watch than the regular guys, but I think he’s got to show real domination before he achieves anywhere near the media dominance that Tiger has had for two decades.  If DeChambeau’s anything like the pretenders of the last 15 years — from Duval, to Garcia, to McIlroy, to Spieth, and others — he’ll have a couple of great years, then quietly settle back to be a top 20 player of mildly extra interest.

Loughry: BDC is marketable. A technology or robotics company comes to mind. I don’t know him personally so it’s hard to comment, but he seems personable, which translates to marketability. Would I personally attach my company to him? Probably not. Will he transcend the sport like Tiger? Uh, no. His methods are fine, but he does not have the same cache as TW.

Schurman: DeChambeau is a character among statues! He is different and in a different way. He has taken an approach to the game that nobody other than Moe Norman has ever taken. He has calculated a scientific method to best produce low scores. It’s unfortunate he does consume a lot of time and hopefully, that’s something he can work out. However, once the other players see him continue to improve and win, they will all want to know more about his style.

Kaplan: No chance he ever moves the needle at even a fraction of the rate Tiger did. There is a small—albeit committed—contingent of golf fans who are intrigued enough about DeChambeau to follow his weekly progress and his off-course golf physics experiments. To everyone else, he’s just a guy on the PGA Tour that wears a silly hat and uses an uncomfortable-looking swing. If I was a sponsor, I’d hold off until he wins at least 3 or 4 majors (he currently has none) until I showered him with riches. To prove my point, I surveyed 16 of my colleagues—all of whom are between 25-45 years old—about whether they had ever heard of Bryson. Twelve of them said they had not, while three of the four who were familiar with the Californian only knew him because of his hat.

Rule:  Let’s face it, nobody will ever transcend the sport the same way Tiger did.  And DeChambeau just doesn’t have the personality to be that kind of influence.  The fact that he plays so slowly will turn some people off (me included), so if I was a sponsor, I wouldn’t be interested.

Quinn: If  DeChambeau (anyway, shouldn’t it be de Chambeau?) were to become transcendent, that would be the day to cancel The Golf Channel, pull the cable plug, put all five sets on Craigslist, and take up curling (with a side of bowling).The high tech analysis available at big box stores and some private clubs is already too much without having to watch this guy wring every last drop of emotion and soul out of his game. If I was a sponsor, I’d get a wing nut like Choi to replace de Chambeau every time he wanted to show up.

Mumford: If I were a sponsor, I’d definitely put some money on BDC. Apart from his recent record (6 wins in 8 months), the guy draws attention – from his quirky swing to his single length irons to his scientific analysis of the golf game. He’s unique and most importantly, he’s able to back up what he says with fact and ultimate proof, albeit too slowly for many fans. DeChambeau is still a long way from icon status – he needs to win some majors – but people will follow him if he continues to show that he has solutions for playing better golf.

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