Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 10, 2017

Change Is Coming To The PGA Tour

The PGA Championship, the final men’s major golf tournament of the year got underway on Thursday on Quail Hollow’s recently reconfigured layout. A major championship is almost never decided after the first eighteen, which is a good thing for the pre-tournament favorites, most of whom treaded water on day one. Dustin Johnson and Jason Day both finished at 1-under par, while Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy each returned a score of 1-over 72. Alone at the top of the leader board for most of the day after signing early for a 67 was 27-year old Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, a member of the European Tour who until Thursday was surely utterly unknown to even ardent American golf fans. Olesen was joined at 4-under by one of the last players to finish, 33-year old American Kevin Kisner. Although Kisner has two PGA Tour wins including a victory in Fort Worth earlier this year, his is not exactly a household name either. The two are one shot ahead of five Americans who, apart from U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, are all similarly anonymous.

Perhaps by Sunday evening one of those virtual unknowns will have shed that status for the far more desirable rank of major champion. More likely those on the first page of Thursday’s leader board will fall back into obscurity by the time this year’s PGA Championship reaches its conclusion. With fifty-four holes to play there will be plenty of time to focus on both the golf shots that ultimately determine the winner and the quality of Quail Hollow’s redesign as a major championship venue. For now fans and pundits alike are still talking about announcements earlier in the week that heralded changes to a game that doesn’t always readily yield to alterations.

The first big change was sartorial. Because this major is organized by the PGA of America, players were allowed to wear shorts during the three days of practice rounds. The association of club professionals announced back in February that long pants were no longer mandatory during practice and pro-am rounds at any of its events. The change aligned the PGA with the European Tour, which dropped its mandatory long pants restriction during practice rounds early last year. With temperatures in the 80s and the humidity high, most players in the field took advantage of the relaxed dress code. Observers from the PGA Tour, which up until 1999 mandated long pants for not just players but caddies as well and which has steadfastly refused to alter the restriction for competitors, even at tournaments played under extreme weather conditions, were no doubt dismayed to see that the practice rounds went off without incident and that no fans fainted at the sight of Bubba Watson’s knees.

A more profound change was announced on Tuesday, when the heads of the PGA of American and the PGA Tour confirmed what the Associated Press had first reported one day earlier, namely that beginning in 2019 the PGA Championship will move to May, and that to accommodate that shift the Players Championship will move from May back to its original date in March. Thus, the new schedule will have the Players as the leadoff event in terms of majors or near-majors, followed by the Masters in April, PGA in May, U.S. Open in June, and the Open Championship in July.

The news was greeted warmly by the players, who were especially unhappy with the schedule last year when the PGA was moved to late July, right on the heels of the Open, to make room for the Olympics. Most of them also agreed that TPC Sawgrass was generally in better condition and a more challenging layout because of the prevailing winds in March.

But the two moves announced this week are likely just the beginning of a revamping of golf’s annual calendar. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan would like to get away from having to compete with the NFL for television time and viewers. Now that the majors will conclude in July with the presentation of the Claret Jug to the “champion golfer of the year,” the next logical move will be to shift the FedEx Cup Playoff events forward so that the Tour Championship finishes by Labor Day weekend. While achieving Monahan’s goal that in turn will almost certainly mean reducing the playoffs from four tournaments to three, with either the Dell Technologies Championship in greater Boston or the BMW Championship in the Chicago area the likely loser of FedEx Cup Playoff status.

Beyond that there is the question of whether the Tour’s current wrap around season, with the first event scheduled for October, can be sustained. The fall tournaments typically have weak fields, with most stars opting for some time off. Many players contend that the PGA Tour needs a true off-season, just like the major team sports. It’s an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” for fans argument, and it has some merit. The players also contend that they need time to work on their games, although for many that contention is disingenuous. The European Tour as well as those in Asia and Australia provide golfing opportunities year-round, and unlike the PGA Tour those other organizations allow sponsors to pay appearance fees to players. If the American tour went dark for a couple of months many pros would be flying about pocketing large checks rather than pounding balls on the range or spending time with their families.

Coming from a very different angle are some in the media who note that the schedule announced this week extends the time between the final major of one season – now the PGA, soon the Open Championship – and the Masters, the first major of the following year. Their solution is to add a fifth major, played in Asia or Australia sometime in September or October. It’s a longshot idea, though it does give a nod to the reality that golf is an international sport.

Sponsorship commitments and the basic inertia of a sport steeped in tradition mean that any reduction in the PGA Tour’s schedule, much less a fifth major, will not happen soon. But from the appearance of knobby knees to a realignment of the game’s four most important events, this week in golf has been about change, with more certainly on the way. That it happened at the season’s last major, being played on a golf course that has undergone a significant redesign since PGA Tour pros last walked its fairways at the 2016 Wells Fargo Championship, seems only fitting.  Call it the Quail Hollow effect.

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