We’re starting to get some clarity about what a new “designated-era” PGA Tour might look like, thanks most recently to this Eamon Lynch report in Golfweek. This year has been characterized as a “bridge year” to get us to the actual, more permanent restructuring of the Tour done largely in response to the LIV threat last year.
Lynch provides some details from a player meeting at Bay Hill this week, and what’s coming into focus for next year and beyond in the designated event era. Some nuts and bolts from the Golfweek report on what designated events might look like:
- fields of 70 to 78 players
- fields consisting of: the prior year’s top 50 in the FedExCup, 10 more players from the current season’s FEC points race not already exempt, a “hot form” exemption for five players’ performance in preceding non-designated events, an OWGR-related carve-out for highly-rated players who may have been injured, and some sponsor’s exemptions with beefed up guardrails
- no cuts at designated events, not including the majors, Players, and FEC Playoffs (Rory McIlroy has since stated there could be others that keep a cut and the no-cut aspect may not be final)
- a planned schedule with designated “bunching” so you’d have multiple weeks of non-designated events in a row followed by a back-to-back designated stretch
Needless to say, the reaction to these details came crashing ashore wave after wave, some stronger than others. The TFE team convened a roundtable to discuss some of the positives and negatives from this potential overhaul.
I disagree with some of the specific moves that, according to Lynch’s report, the PGA Tour will make next year. But first I should say that even if the designated-event structure is executed in this less-than-ideal way, it would be an improvement on the pre-LIV PGA Tour schedule. We need the top players competing against each other consistently. We need PGA and PGB tours. We need meritocratic churn between different levels of competition. I believe we’ll have those things in 2024.
Okay, my critiques:
1. A lot of the PGA Tour’s best events have identities and histories rooted in certain field sizes, week-of qualification opportunities, and 36-hole cuts. It’s already a shame that the L.A. Open has turned into the Genesis Invitational. To see it become a low-pressure outing for the world’s richest players would be sad.
2. There’s a reason the Netflix show had its talking heads explain the concept of a mid-tournament cut 73 times: the finality of a cut lends drama and intensity to a golf event, especially to the first two rounds. You can’t play like shit on Thursday and Friday and just sort of hang around for the weekend. Tournament golf is brutal. It’s not supposed to coddle. That’s a huge part of why we like watching it.
3. Lynch’s article states that designated-event fields will consist of the top 50 from the previous season’s FedEx Cup, the top 10 not otherwise eligible from the current FedEx Cup standings, and five players who have performed well in recent non-designated events. (There will also be sponsor exemptions and maybe an OWGR category.) I don’t think five spots is enough for non-designated-event qualifiers. Make it 15. Players who thrive at the Valspars and the John Deeres should regularly get a shot at the big boys.
The no-cut decision feels like an unforced error, but you can understand it from a business and player perspective. Should those be the motivating perspectives? No, probably not — focus on the product — a lack of focus and then a re-emphasis forced by LIV — is what got us into this era of upheaval and reform. Reading between some of the lines in Eamon’s report, from the Tour’s simulations exercises, it sounds like the elites from the Wilmington meeting wanted an even more closed-off and smaller shop. While I think it’s an unforced error and just unnecessary to remove it, I do think people overemphasize how much the majority audience actually cares about the cut-line drama on Fridays and whether those hovering around it are material at all to Sunday afternoon, when most people watch the actual tournament in its last 10 percent of existence.
It’s not an entirely closed shop, putting a greater (maybe the first real ever?) emphasis and stakes on early in-season FedExCup points races. The prior year’s race is still the majority swath of the field, but there’s room for recent form in non-designated events and current-season FEC points earners. This does not seem bad! For those hollering about removal of the drama of a midpoint cut, turn your eyes to this, which is generating stakes in more places and more events in more sports on leaderboards. I’ll care more about the movement in a late Sunday Honda leaderboard for what it means to designated event access than I will a Friday afternoon cut sweat for Tyrrell Hatton to either go home early or finish T46. Not saying we shouldn’t or can’t have both, just the hollering is a bit much.
Lastly, I think it’s simplistic to call these WGCs 2.0. It’s not creating an entirely new product out of thin air like Tim Finchem’s WGC experiment. It’s re-formatting (significantly so I admit) existing events, most of which have strong decades-long identities, and injecting them with guaranteed all-star fields. There’s also, as we’ve been told, the possibility of rotation — so your Phoenix Open can be the “open” 130-man event one year or designated the next and the party remains for both, or the Scottish and other international events can get in the mix. WGCs were a forceful attempt to create an identity-less new product. They also weren’t the total failure or bore we tend to associate them with at the end. I think designating an event with a decades-long history is lamentable for purists, but it’s not a WGC 2.0. This feels much more flexible than that concept and also building upon years of demonstrated cachet at core Tour stops.
What I like: I love the cadence of these events. This year’s schedule doesn’t make much sense. Right now we are in a stretch of five designated events in seven weeks. Next year’s move of two designated events followed by three non-designated will allow fans to know what to expect. Along the same lines, I love giving players who play great in those three non-designated events spots in the next two designated fields. That makes a ton of sense.
What I hate: No cut and small fields. Golf is a slow sport, the drama unfolds over FOUR days. Most sports are a couple of hours. When you remove the cut, you remove one of the two big stories of the first two days of the tournament: who’s playing well and who’s in danger of missing the cut. There are a myriad of issues with the small field size. My biggest one is that it will lead to more sleepy Sundays. When you remove players from the mix, you increase the odds of a runaway winner. The tournaments that everyone remembers have iconic finishes between two or more contenders. Fewer players make this less likely to happen.
In a black-and-white world where I have to choose whether this proposal is good or bad, I’d say bad. But in the real world, I’m floating somewhere in the middle right now. Keeping the fields to 70 or 80 players doesn’t really eliminate anyone notable. Guys like Nick Taylor may not get a chance to play in the final group of the WM Phoenix Open, but another under-the-radar guy might, and they might be in better form if they’re in the top 10 of the otherwise not qualified players in the current season FedEx Cup standings. If you remove Taylor from the final group of the 2023 WMPO, we instead have a final pairing of Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm or a threesome of Rahm, Scheffler, and Jordan Spieth. Feels like a tradeoff the PGA Tour is more than willing to accept. All that said, I do wish there was a slightly bigger field to accommodate more up-and-coming talent. The hope seems to be that those guys will be among the 10 not otherwise qualified but that seems like somewhat of a risk.
I do wish that there was some cut element, even if those guys get paid for showing up. They’re rarely shown in TV windows anyway and I don’t believe you should receive any credit towards the FedEx Cup for a 70th place finish in a no-cut event.
The superstar element of the small fields does close-to-guarantee stellar final groups every Sunday. That may lead to some runaway winners, as Andy noted, but I’m okay with that. It could create some sleepy Sundays to be sure, but if someone is head and shoulders above a field in a given week and wins by five, that’s fine. Not everything can be about the television product.