This week, facing an existential threat imposed by LIV’s loud arrival into the golf-sphere, the PGA Tour released its 2022-23 schedule. The cash-infused lineup partially solves one of the Tour’s problems: it pays the golfers more money. It also reduces the number of players who make the Playoffs, enabling a more competitive battle for status on Tour. But the PGA Tour’s “new” schedule still represents a colossal failure to understand its limitations as a modern entertainment product.
In case you missed it, the schedule features 47 events, nearly all of which are 72-hole stroke play tournaments. The season starts with a fall series and culminates in a three-event playoff series with the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. So it’s basically the same product you watched this year. And the year before.
My primary issue with the schedule is that it fails to establish any semblance of a cohesive season. Specifically, the flawed FedEx Cup system and its incentive structure undermine the credibility of the Tour Championship, which is supposed to be a dramatic bookend to the Tour season.
Modern sports entertainment is moments-driven. Sports fans crave big moments and the excitement of reacting on social media. People want to debate players’ and teams’ chances of winning a championship. When an NFL team wins, its chances of making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl increase. NFL games feel significant because they are significant within the context of championship aspirations. In the UFC, a rapidly growing entity, fans consume the sport through the lens of a championship. “Massive win, do you think her next fight will be a title fight? Do you think she’d be able to compete?”
Following Tony Finau’s commanding back-to-back victories over the past two weeks, how many conversations have been centered around his chances of winning the Tour Championship? Do most fans have any idea where he ranks in the FedEx Cup Standings? Of course not. The Tour’s schedule and points system obstruct this dynamic.
Qualification for the FedEx Cup Playoffs is based on a player’s cumulative FedEx Cup points earned throughout the 44-event regular season. Importantly, the system fails to properly account for strength of field. As an example, consider that Lucas Herbert earned 500 FedEx Cup points for winning the Butterfield Bermuda Championship this season, nearly tripling Cam Smith’s 180-point haul for finishing T3 at…the Masters. Despite having just one top-10 finish in the 2022 calendar year, Herbert is ranked 45th in the FedEx Cup list, within range of qualifying for the Tour Championship.
If FedExCup points are the primary objective this week, players should be heading to the Barbasol: pic.twitter.com/vZmpV7SqUN
— data golf (@DataGolf) July 5, 2022
The system creates bad incentives for players. If winning the FedEx Cup is a player’s only goal, he should play in every single PGA Tour event, which is unfeasible. This paradox diminishes the integrity of the Tour Championship. Thus, the season is diminished. I empathize with players’ aggravation at the system’s incentives:
So Patrick Reed claims the reason for the move to LIV is he felt he was forced to play too much on the PGA tour. Over his career he avgd 30.5 tournaments a season. JT, Rory, and Rahm avg is 24! He chooses to play almost more than anyone!
— Colt Knost (@ColtKnost) June 29, 2022
By the time the season’s first “strong” full field event, the Farmers Insurance Open, rolls around each January, some PGA Tour players have already racked up 800+ FedEx Cup points. Naturally, that points tally is both significant and impossible for the casual golf fan to interpret.
Instead of whining, I’ll offer two different approaches to how the Tour can create a better season.
1) Reduce the number of tournaments in the schedule that are Playoff eligible
Designate 10-12 prestigious tournaments per year as Playoff eligible, indicating that the tournament awards FedEx Cup points. Players can play in any other remaining tournaments to earn money, fulfill sponsor obligations, and jockey for OWGR standing.
Superstars like Rory McIlroy would play 12-16 times per year without compromising their chances of achieving any goals within the sport. This elevates the prestige of the Tour Championship.
2) Change Playoff qualification criteria from Total Points Earned to Avg. Points Earned per Tournament
Rank players within the FedEx Cup Standings based on their average FedEx Cup points earned instead of total points earned. Set a minimum number of tournaments a golfer must play to be Playoff eligible (~10-12 tournaments). Change the points awarded per tournament to be more reflective of field strength.
This structure enables market forces to take over. You expect a tournament to have a weak field, yet it awards 300 points to the winner? Well then show up for it. Now when a player takes a week off, he is no longer tumbling down the standings.
When I’ve proposed this solution in the past, people counter that it incentivizes players to play less golf. If a player wins three of his first ten events of the season, maybe he’d just stop playing and sit out until the Playoffs. I am skeptical that players will forego $10M-$20M purses to marginally improve their chances of winning the FedEx Cup. The last time I checked, every golfer besides Charles Howell III is motivated by money.
And if a player goes on a historic run of golf and decides it is in his best interest to sit out until the Playoffs, fine! He is validating the importance of the Playoffs while providing up-and-coming golfers with playing opportunities in his absence. Both parties are happy.
Under either proposed structure, superstars’ incentives and schedules improve. Yes, some tournaments would be relegated explicitly, but they have already been relegated implicitly.
Major championships cannot be the only source of big moments. The PGA Tour needs to own and operate big moments too. Eventually, the PGA Tour must create a digestible, valuable season-ending championship with regular season events that reinforce the integrity of the title.
Work your way backwards.