SAN DIEGO — From the time he took up golf as a child in France, Matthieu Pavon dreamed of playing and winning in America. Saturday, at age 31, with the setting sun casting a beautiful glow over Torrey Pines, he not only achieved his goal by coming from four strokes down to shoot a 3-under 69 and claim the Farmers Insurance Open at 13-under for four days, but also put his name in the history books as the first Frenchman to win a PGA Tour event since World War II.
The outcome was not without anxious moments. Leading by two, Pavon bogeyed 17 to bring three players to within a stroke of the lead, including group mate Nicolai Højgaard. Pavon then hit driver to start the par-5 18th into the left bunker and landed his second shot in the deep rough. With disaster hanging in the cool air, it was clear he was facing a defining moment, the type that often defines agony or ecstasy.
Pavon’s caddie suggested he lay up; Pavon thought otherwise. “I was so pumped at that time,” he said, “I knew I had the energy to lift that ball up on the green.”
He did just that, nearly stumbling off balance after muscling an approach over water and within 8 feet on the cup, setting up the birdie that allowed him to avoid a playoff with Højgaard, who birdied the hole to finish at 12-under for the week.
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The exciting finish contrasted with what had been a ho-hum tournament through three rounds. With many of the top tour players sitting out to avoid a difficult course so early in the season, or to prepare for next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the second signature event of the year, it is hard not to wonder whether we are seeing what non-elevated tournaments will look like when (if?) the PGA Tour and LIV Golf complete the merger that was tentatively agreed to last summer; in other words, relatively anonymous players, at least to casual fans, competing in non-signature events for smaller purses while household names stay away to focus on marquee events.
That has mostly been the case through the first month of the season. Grayson Murray, who had one PGA Tour victory in 129 starts, won the Sony Open two weeks ago in another diluted field. And last week Nick Dunlap saved The American Express by becoming the first amateur in 33 years to win a PGA Tour event. The nine players at the top of the leaderboard entering the final round here at Torrey Pines were all seeking their first tour win.
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The details of the proposed merger between the two golf leagues have yet to be determined, but it will be interesting to see what type of financial commitment will follow to non-signature events. And the entity most interested in that answer could be the television partners responsible for broadcasting the 44 scheduled events. The math might not add up in their favor.
Consider: The elite tour pros typically can be expected to play 20-23 tournaments a year. If you accept that 16 of those are likely to be the events with elevated purses — eight signature events, four majors, the Players, and three FedEx Cup playoff events — that leaves 28 events with, potentially, a lot of absent star power.
Some tournament sponsors have already withdrawn or announced plans to withdraw their financial commitments either because the cost has become prohibitive or they feel they are not getting the same return on investment if the event fails to receive elevated status. Honda announced in late 2022 it was ending its 40-year sponsorship of the event in Palm Beach, Fla., and in December Wells Fargo disclosed that it will not be renewing its agreement for the event in Charlotte, N.C. after next year.
Farmers Insurance reportedly plans to pull out of the Torrey Pines event after 2026, though the organizer of the tournament said he has not been told that is the case. How it will all play out remains to be seen, but the signs point to the non-signature events becoming, in essence, a gray area between the Korn Ferry Tour and the elite level of the PGA Tour.
That is not to demean or disrespect individuals who fail to move the needle with casual fans. But it is to say it could be a concern with broadcast networks whose financial health is tied to viewership. The only thing better than a stroke-for-stroke, back-and-forth on the back nine of the final round is a stroke-for-stroke, back-and-forth among elite talents on the back nine.
Typically, there has to be an element of familiarity to achieve appointment viewing. Or, there has to be the hint of something spectacular or historic, which occurred last week with Dunlap. His final-round performance at The AmEx drew 534,000 viewers on Golf Channel, a 37 percent increase over the previous year when Jon Rahm won.
The ratings for Pavon’s victory are unknown as of this writing. Maybe folks tuned in after he made his run to capture the lead on No. 12 and hold off a field where stars such as Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele were felled by their putters and unable to make a sustained charge. But the fact that they were here should be considered a positive because it’s troubling to think about how many others were not.
(Top photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)