Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2022

The PGA Tour And Its Top Players Go All In

As the Tour Championship gets underway at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, there are doubtless still casual fans who think of professional golf as a sport bound by tradition and resistant to change.  Clearly, those folks have not been paying attention. 

The immediate proof of that comes from a quick comparison of this year’s field for the culminating event on the PGA Tour’s schedule with the list of FedEx Cup finalists from last season.  When Patrick Cantlay parleyed his starting advantage of two to as many as ten strokes over his fellow competitors into a one-shot victory over Jon Rahm last Labor Day weekend, the third-place finisher, four strokes further adrift, was Kevin Na.  Also in the top ten on 2021’s final leader board were Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, and Abraham Ancer.  Not one of those four also-rans is in this year’s field, nor are six others who qualified for East Lake last season, for the simple reason that they have all departed for what some wags have taken to calling the bonesaw tour, LIV Golf.

The LIV tour was still just a rumor a year ago.  Back then the major perceived threat to the established order of professional golf was something called the Premier Golf League (PGL), which was purportedly raising money for a series of tournaments that would stylistically mirror what is now LIV’s format – 54 holes, shotgun starts, no cuts, and a combination of individual and team scoring.  The one significant difference was that the PGL was promising mixed fields of both men and women golfers.  But while the PGL still has a snazzy website which claims an 18-event season will start next January and includes a page filled with vague promises of an IPO and the opportunity for weekend hackers to become “owners,” it seems unlikely to advance beyond cyberspace.

LIV Golf, on the other hand, had the virtually unlimited resources of the Saudi Public Investment Fund and the imprimatur of two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman as CEO when its existence was formally announced last October.  In retrospect, Norman was a natural choice to lead the insurgent league, since his battles with the PGA Tour date to his prime years on the links in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he spent a total of 331 weeks over several stints as the number one ranked golfer in the world.

In the months since LIV’s formal creation, discussion of the renegade tour’s likelihood of success, speculation about who would succumb to the lure of the absurd amounts of money being dangled in front of PGA Tour stars by Norman and the Saudis, and analysis of the ultimate impact on the PGA Tour have become a regular part of weekly talk among golf fans.  Change, supposedly always so slow to come to this ancient game, has been nearly constant.  It would be silly to suggest that won’t continue, but with this week’s announcement of a major overhaul to the PGA Tour’s schedule and economic structure, perhaps fans can now quote Churchill, who said in decidedly more dire circumstances, “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The changes announced by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan as the FedEx Cup finalists were going through their last-minute preparations at East Lake were clearly the product of at least two meetings that fans know about among the Tour’s top golfers.  The first of those sessions was held prior to the Open Championship in July, and the second was just last week, before the BMW Championship, the second of three FedEx Cup Playoff tournaments.  But Monahan responding with a detailed plan only one week after the most recent players meeting suggests there has been a considerable amount of discussion that miraculously escaped the attention of social media.

Reporting on Monahan’s announcement has naturally focused on money – the designation of twelve tournaments as “elevated status” events with purses averaging $20 million each, the creation of an Earnings Assurance Program that establishes a $500,000 guaranteed earnings base for a large group of players, and the doubling of the bonus pool for a revised and expanded Player Impact Program (PIP) to $100 million.  Taken together, these changes will dramatically boost the earnings of the players whose names fans immediately recognize, while also providing stability for rookies and fringe players, allowing those golfers to focus more on their games and less on figuring out how to cover the very significant expenses incurred by every touring pro. 

But as jaw-dropping as the numbers are to the average fan, what amounts to the PGA Tour’s best offer to its members still falls short of the blank checks being passed out by the Saudis.  That means some players will still defect, but what Monahan clearly hopes is that the added money along with the legacy opportunities that LIV Golf and its 54-hole exhibitions cannot provide will keep a solid core of the game’s top professionals in place.

To that end, eligibility changes to the PIP are key, and ultimately of far more importance to fans than the size of the check a golfer receives at the end of a tournament.  To share in the $100 million bonus pool that will be distributed to the twenty players determined to have the greatest impact on fans and the game, a golfer will need to commit to the twelve elevated status events, and the four majors, and the Players Championship, plus at least three other regular weekly Tour stops, for a total of twenty tournaments a year, up from the current minimum of fifteen.  The reasoning is that this new requirement will produce more frequent appearances not just from the top twenty golfers, but upwards of thirty or more who believe they have a chance to climb into the top twenty.  That in turn means stronger fields at more events, including, because of the “three other Tour stops” stipulation, tournaments that aren’t as glamorous but remain critical to the long-term health of the PGA Tour.

None of this will likely stop another group of PGA Tour players – the current rumor is seven, led by Cam Smith – from defecting to LIV Golf in the very near future.  But it may well stanch the wound, and cause those who have been contemplating the lure of Saudi riches but not yet committed to pause and reflect.  More important, it will strengthen the already enormous appeal of PGA Tour events that pit the game’s best against one another.  And if, in the year ahead, the fields at those events are missing a small handful of golfers who arguably qualify as among the best?  Well, how many golf fans won’t watch the Tour Championship this weekend because Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau aren’t in the field?   


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