We interrupt this week’s super-bowl-of-golf spectacle already in progress in Arizona with this public-service announcement: Will somebody please save the PGA Tour from itself before it’s too late?
Let’s back up just a second and explain before we get to the reason for the warning. The PGA Tour deserves immense credit for its on-the-fly reimagining of the 2023 schedule with the hasty creation of its lucrative “designated” events. Threatened by further poaching from rival LIV Golf and presented last year with a concept endorsed by Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and a quorum of still-loyal stars, tour commissioner Jay Monahan acted quickly to build a schedule that makes his best remaining assets happy.
This week’s WM Phoenix Open is the first of five regularly scheduled events that were suddenly enhanced with $20 million purses to help bring together the PGA Tour’s brightest stars more often and ensure they don’t feel economic pangs of regret for not taking the free gobs of cash that the Saudis were offering to make the leap to LIV. Combined with the majors, Players, invitationals, playoffs, season-ending Tour Championship and season-opening Tournament of Champions, there are 17 weeks on the calendar when the best of the best will be assembled for some heavyweight competition.
The whole plan came together so quickly that the folks at the PGA Tour had time to do only one thing: persuade enough event sponsors to pony up an extra $12 million in 2023 to get “designated.” Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, there’s enough runway now before a return to a calendar-year tour schedule starting in 2024 for the PGA Tour to screw things up. And all the whispers point to the tour doing just that by presumably downsizing its designated-event field sizes next season.
Creating a whole bunch of limited-field, no-cut (or very short-cut) events would fly in the face of everything folks at the tour have been mocking about LIV Golf since it started staging 48-player, 54-hole, no-cut events last June. It would just be a relative knockoff of the Greg Norman “exhibition” circuit.
And it would undercut every talking point Monahan has hammered home of what differentiates the PGA Tour from its upstart rival, which filed a federal antitrust lawsuit last year.
“We’re at a point now where it’s product versus product,” Monahan said in January.
“What they have is very different from what we have,” he added. “We’re going down our path, and they’re going down theirs.
“We’re going to continue to be the most pro-competitive, aspirational tour in men’s professional golf,” he said.
It’s hard for aspiring players to break through when competition is reduced to a relatively closed shop. One tour for the haves and a parallel tour for the have-nots.
One would hope that McIlroy and Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa and Jordan Spieth, et al., aren’t fretting about missing cuts in designated events if they don’t get guaranteed four-day passes. They’ve all been playing up the meritocracy that separates the PGA Tour from LIV and the value of earning trophies and building legacies. A bad week and a weekend off every now and then isn’t going to damage those legacies.
“I’ve always felt a cut is important to the sport. Depending where we end up in the field, that’s absolutely a consideration.” – Jay Monahan
The 2023 schedule already includes five no-cut events with fields of 70 or fewer players: the Tournament of Champions, WGC Match Play and the three playoff events including the 30-player finale at East Lake. Past WGC events at Firestone, Doral, Mexico and China have “run their course” and disappeared. The tour doesn’t need any more weeks diminished by a lack of depth – a feature that elevates competition and makes the outcome more meaningful, especially when the new Official World Golf Ranking system de-emphasizes short-field events.
The commissioner himself said as much in January.
“I’ve always felt a cut is important to the sport,” Monahan said. “Depending where we end up in the field, that’s absolutely a consideration.”
It should be more than a consideration. It should be the rule. The invitationals at Riviera, Bay Hill and Muirfield Village already are limited to 120 players, a number that seems the sweet spot in balancing competitive opportunity, spirit and experience.
Does anyone think that the late Arnold Palmer would have wanted his legacy attached to a no-cut field? Does Jack Nicklaus want that at his Memorial? Does the historic event formerly known as the L.A. Open, where Charlie Sifford won in 1969, not want to be able to offer the exemption it gives out in the late Sifford’s honor because of a downsized field? Do the sponsors who ponied up all that extra cash not want to have the right to grant exemptions to a couple of players whom it chooses?
Please think this through before enacting changes that diminish the product and the merit-based system upon which the PGA Tour has always prided itself.
Look at this week’s event with its 135-player field. The WM Phoenix Open boasted what has been called the greatest Monday qualifying turnout, with dreamers seeking a piece of the $20 million pot. Ryan French of the Firepit Collective broke down the original crowd that signed up for a shot at three spots in the field as such: combined number of PGA Tour wins (23), European tour wins (nine), Korn Ferry Tour wins (30), PGA Tour earnings ($242 million) and PGA Tour starts (more than 6,800). The Monday finish at Pebble Beach kept some from participating, but 96 showed up. Andre Metzger, Brett White and Dalton Ward earned the coveted spots in the field and the chance to catch lightning in a bottle and change their careers.
Limiting fields in the most lucrative events on tour would further tilt the balance of power to those who already have it while lessening chances for those who want to attain it.
The PGA Tour and its schedule certainly could use some freshening up, and new ideas and concepts and venues aren’t a bad thing. Another match-play event to replace the departing WGC in Austin, Texas, would be welcome, maybe with 70 players competing for 36 holes to qualify for a 16-player bracket. Perhaps moving and designating the already no-cut CJ Cup from the fall into a vacancy left by a weaker event would be a good way of creating an exclusive tournament without taking away existing opportunities. Maybe committing $750,000 of those designated $20 million purses to guaranteeing 50 guys who miss the cut $15,000 each would appease players committed to playing designated events that don’t typically suit their game or schedule.
Anything other than reducing established legacy events to anti-competitive no-cut affairs. Leave that product variation to LIV. Limiting fields in the most lucrative events on tour would further tilt the balance of power to those who already have it while lessening chances for those who want to attain it. It would skew the world rankings and tour points standings – two factors critical in accessing majors and the playoffs – and make the PGA Tour lean closer to the closed shop that LIV created for itself.
The tour has taken a lot of good steps to survive and thrive against the threat of a rival tour. It’s effectively positioned itself to succeed on the course and in the courts.
Please don’t cede that higher ground by lowering the tour to LIV standards.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
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