With only five more weeks remaining before the PGA Tour’s revamped FedEx Cup playoffs, let’s ask a simple question with a complicated answer: Has the tour’s new schedule, the one truncated to avoid American football, been an improvement?
Full judgment will be reserved until the Tour Championship ends on Aug. 25 but the consensus appears positive. Giving the FedEx Cup playoffs a larger platform during a quiet time of year on the sports calendar is a no-brainer. And having four majors in consecutive months provides a faster pacing to the season while providing the PGA Championship and Players Championship a higher ceiling.
For years, there has been the argument that fans don’t get an opportunity to miss the PGA Tour because there’s seemingly no off-season. That’s a pipe dream. The tour is run by the players and if sponsors can provide purses for 46 events in one season, it will happen.
However, between the wraparound season, which debuted in the fall of 2013, and the new accelerated schedule ending before Labor Day, it’s hard not to sense a growing chasm between regular tour events and the four majors. Surely that gap has been there for a long time. But now there’s an unhealthy quality to it. The regular events feel devalued.
The genesis of that sentiment comes from the elite players, the ones who ultimately drive the product. Nate Lashley and Chez Reavie are great stories but the overall interest level isn’t there for players like them. Final round TV ratings for this year’s Travelers Championship, where Reavie outdueled Keegan Bradley, were down 39 percent compared to when Jordan Spieth won the same tournament two years ago. Spieth is one of the few who can drive eyeballs to golf.
“If you’re serious about trying to win the Open you should be playing at least one, if not two, of the events running into it.” – Pádraig Harrington
Still, the problem seems bigger than whether one of the handful of stars is in contention. Taking inventory of the best players in the game shows how skewed they are towards majors.
By the time Tiger Woods plays the Open Championship later this month, it will likely be his fourth major in five starts. Pádraig Harrington wasn’t impressed.
“If you’re serious about trying to win the Open you should be playing at least one, if not two, of the events running into it,” Harrington said earlier this week.
From the beginning of April through the end of July, it’s possible Woods will play in just one non-major tour event. Heck, he’s only played in nine tour events so far this season. Obviously part of that is to preserve his body. But there’s no doubt that having him skip such a large chunk of the season also has to do with a lack of necessity.
Other star players who carry tremendous influence also don’t appear all that taken with regular season events. Brooks Koepka, who told media at both the AT&T Byron Nelson and RBC Canadian Open that he felt his result at those tournaments wouldn’t matter, often looks disinterested, tired or both. And the effort he has exerted in winning or almost winning the year’s first three majors has taken an emotional and physical toll.
“I don’t think I’m even over the PGA,” Koepka said two weeks ago at the Travelers Championship. “And then to exert all your energy (at the U.S. Open), I’m just fried. I mean, I’ve caught myself yawning on the golf course. I don’t think I’ve ever yawned on a golf course before.”
Being tired is justified but the overall apathy he shows towards regular events is illustrative. Many elite players share the same feeling.
Maybe non-majors come off as devalued because the fields don’t feel genuine. We know Spieth will be at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and AT&T Byron Nelson, Rickie Fowler will play in the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Dustin Johnson is in both the RBC Heritage and RBC Canadian Open, Justin Rose will play the Zurich Classic and the list goes on. When you wear a company name on your cap or bag, part of the deal is playing in that sponsor’s event. Business is business. But these deals seem to be the primary way events assemble fields.
That doesn’t include the rule where if a player doesn’t play in 25 or more tournaments, they have to add an event they haven’t played in the previous four seasons. Lifetime tour membership – 20 or more wins and 15 or more seasons on tour – will get you out of this, but most star players must add new events. When Johnson reached 20 wins earlier this year, he initially believed he had achieved lifetime membership and could bypass adding new events, but he has only been on Tour for 12 years.
So Johnson ended up playing the Valspar Championship.
“Somebody told me afterwards (about the membership), which it’s fine,” Johnson said prior to the Valspar. “It’s not a big deal. The only thing that I wasn’t too fond of was I had to add another tournament to my schedule.”
That’s more apathetic than inspiring. Last week, Johnson made another comment that falls directly into the yawn category when he awkwardly thanked Wyndham for sponsoring the Wyndham Rewards, a contrived “game within a game” where the top 10 point leaders earn a bonus at the end of the regular season.
The tour can add all the money it wants, but that isn’t what makes an event relevant. An intriguing tournament is always led by the best characters playing inspired golf on grand stages.
Players don’t receive compensation for playing in the Ryder Cup. We know how the golf community embraces that.
There are other factors at play. TV broadcasts for the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship are immersive experiences with no title sponsor to endlessly promote. Watching the Rocket Mortgage Classic felt like a commercial with golf sprinkled in because it has to be. Again, business is business but it’s another aspect of the product that adds to the major vs. non-major chasm.
All of this leaves you wondering how many tour events elite players want to play. And more importantly, do players and fans get fatigued by so many events in a tight window?
Regular events matter to the vast majority of players. But there are only a few guys who generate significant interest without a major championship as the backdrop. And to those players, normal tournaments are often prep for a major, or a business obligation or both.
That reality makes majors and non-majors seem light years apart.
Brooks Koepka says he sometimes finds himself exhausted on the golf course and catches himself yawning. Photo: G Fiume, Getty Images
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