The only match play event on the PGA Tour schedule tees off this week, a truly unique championship sandwiched between elevated status events, the Gold Standard, and the Masters. It’s also the first WGC of the year in a new truncated rota for that series that has become a staple of the schedule over the last two decades.
But with the PGA Tour now dominant among its OWGR competitors, and disruptor tours threatening to take the top world players with cruise ships of cash, is this the end of the road for the WGCs? We dipped into the egg carton to convene this roundtable for a quick discussion on some of the themes and challenges around this match play event and the WGCs as a whole.
Do you think we’re coming to the end of the WGC era?
Meg Adkins: I don’t expect any sort of quick and painless death for the WGCs. The Tour will go to its old bag of tricks whether it’s changing sponsors, locations, increasing purses, etc., to try and keep the WGCs on life support. While the events provide little value add to fans, the players enjoy the benefits of a limited field with no cut and a huge payout. Scrapping those perks amidst the threat of the rival leagues with deep pockets doesn’t seem likely at all.
Will Knights: Yes. I don’t think the WGC moniker or series continues on much longer. But the goal of the WGCs was to funnel money to top players and that push is only going to intensify. Whether the PGA Tour designates more events as “elevated status” tournaments or adds more programs like the Player Impact Program, it seems there is real momentum toward allocating a greater chunk of the cash cow to the big names. The WGCs may not continue in practice but their mission is growing stronger.
Garrett Morrison: Obviously the notion of an “elevated status” event—with a big purse, lots of points, a limited field of top players, and no threat of anyone going home empty-handed—is alive and well. In fact, as Will suggests, this type of event will become crucial to the PGA Tour as it fends off the recruitment efforts of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational.
But the concept of a World Golf Championship has probably seen its day. Remember, the WGCs started as the Tour’s half-assed, half-panicked response to Greg Norman’s attempt to get a “World Tour” off the ground in the mid-1990s. (Time is indeed a flat circle.) There’s a reason “world” was in the title of both initiatives: the whole idea was to bring together a global array of the best golfers from every major tour. Back then, the PGA Tour didn’t have a complete stranglehold on the OWGR top 50, so there was some novelty in seeing the likes of José María Olazábal, Colin Montgomerie, and Jumbo Ozaki face off against the Tour’s U.S.-based regulars. The current WGCs no longer have that international flavor—not only because most of them are held in America, but also because today’s Olazabals, Montys, and Ozakis live in Jupiter or Scottsdale and play a full slate of PGA Tour events.
In other words, first the WGCs helped solidify the dominance of the PGA Tour, then the dominance of the PGA Tour helped render the WGCs irrelevant. Huh.
Andy Johnson: I’m not ready to declare them dead. Perhaps in their current form they are cooked, thanks to the SGL, but I think that the Tour’s response will be to essentially create souped-up WGC events. When it comes to innovative formats for golf, the Tour gets as creative as a vanilla wafer. That lack of creativity will likely leave us with more stale 72-hole individual stroke play events that have a ton of cash up for grabs with even fewer players than the current WGCs. This could also likely lead to the loss of the one match-play event of the year, which is sad.
Is the WGC era a success or failure? Something in between?
Andy: Created as a response to Norman’s first attempt at a World Tour, this experiment failed miserably. The original premise of having worldwide events was grand, but unfortunately the players didn’t want to travel to Australia for a match-play event and the Tour’s sponsors didn’t want to pony up big money for non-domestic events. So the WGCs devolved into small-field cash grabs mostly in the U.S., creating a mockery of its moniker as “World Golf Championships.”
Garrett: Let’s see… Tiger Woods won 18 WGCs and still no one cares about them? Yeah, I’d call that a failure.
Will: It’s impossible to measure the impact, but the early years of the WGCs have to be considered a success. Between the WGC-American Express and the adoption of the World Cup, roughly half the WGCs were played outside of the United States. Those drew international audiences to see events they wouldn’t otherwise have access to and fans in the United States saw golf played around the world. As soon as that morphed into three events in the U.S. and one in China, the WGC experiment became stale. But they really had something in the early days—there were successes along the way!
Meg: It’s a failure. The potential was there for it to dramatically change the pro golf landscape, which makes what has transpired over the years that much more disappointing. You can put the blame on the players for pushing back on the increased travel the events created or on the Tour for shuffling events around so much even golf’s biggest fans couldn’t keep things straight. But the fact of the matter is that the WGCs didn’t ever live up to their billing, even with the concurrence of Tiger’s superstardom, when there was more interest in golf than ever before.
What’s the first thing you would change or alter about the WGC Match Play in its current form?
Garrett: Four words: bring back the stymie.
Andy: I think this event is really close to being great, but unfortunately the Tour has done it no favors. The spot in the schedule is rough, as the potentially most grueling event on the schedule (amount of holes plus a tough-to-walk course) right before the first men’s major of the year. The format change from 2017 also took away some of the knockout charm. The pool play has some advantages but it makes the early rounds more difficult to follow. A magic recipe for March Madness is the idea of “win or go home,” a concept easy for fans to follow that puts a ton of pressure on every televised match. To appease sponsors and keep top players around longer, the Tour went with “win or maybe go home.” It has led to a number of meaningless matches and awkward sudden death playoffs between players who had already played an entire 18-hole match.
Will: If there is only one match play event a year, I don’t know that the casual viewer is ever going to be all that invested. I would love to either see a match-play series run throughout the season so that we could follow along or see this event transformed into a team competition. If the team option were implemented, captains could pick their teams in a televised event on Monday or Tuesday, round-robin play can stay during the early week portion, and then the weekend is the final eight teams. It wouldn’t add any additional play to the weekend and there would be more golfers on the course during the final day, eliminating the boring broadcast on Sunday. They’d have to sort out the FedEx Cup point allocation and money, of course, but this is a hypothetical.
Meg: It’s just another example of the Tour whiffing on an opportunity to bring in new sets of eyes to its product. We’re in the middle of March Madness, but instead of using this weekend to have fans whose basketball brackets have been busted try their hand again with golf with a single elimination bracket where you could see St. Peter Malnati take out Kentucky-born Justin Thomas, you have a bracket that looks like March Madness’s third cousin twice removed. I understand that the likelihood of a sponsor agreeing to a true match-play event is reduced, but I wish the Tour could somehow make it happen.