Unless you follow golf closely, you might not realize that the PGA Tour has a new schedule this year. The biggest changes involve the moving of the Players Championship from May to March and the moving of the “PGA Championship” from August to May.
Here are the reasons: (1) to shorten the golf season and keep it from running over into the first month of the football season; (2) to give certain tournaments more prominent positions on the schedule; and (3) in my humble opinion, to help the PGA Tour ordain its own major championship.
You see, the PGA Tour, the tournament players’ association, does not run any of the traditional four majors. Here is the rundown: The PGA of America (the club pros’ organization) runs the PGA Championship that it started more than 100 years ago. The Masters has been run by Augusta National since 1934, the U.S. Open by the United States Golf Association since 1895 and the British Open by the R&A – formerly called the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews – since 1860. Obviously, the majors have considerable history behind them.
PGA Tour wants a major
In an attempt to create its own “major” championship, the PGA Tour inaugurated the Players Championship in 1974, a mere 45 years ago. But as much as the Players Championship has touted its strong field of the top ranked professional players in the world, its lucrative purse and its great course with the notorious island green, it has never really caught on as being at the same level as the “traditional” four Majors.
The PGA Tour’s other venture in trying to create a marquee tournament has revolved around its season-long FedEx Cup point system, first established in 2007. The FedEx Cup culminates in a season-ending four-tournament series, concluding with the Tour Championship in September. This complicated concept also has struggled to catch on with the viewing public, one reason being that it is, indeed, complicated, and another being that it conflicts with the exciting first three or four games of the college and professional football season.
A new schedule and a new strategy
What the PGA Tour has now engineered is the move of the Players Championship from May to March, and the PGA Championship from its lonely spot in August to the now-open slot in May. In addition, the FedEx Cup is now ending the season with a three tournament series (reduced from the previous four), all played in August and still culminating with the Tour Championship.
So, who are the big winners in this restructuring?
>> 1. The Players Championship now takes on a prominent position in March, billed as the first big event of the golf season, thereby making another run at being recognized as a major. Indeed, right now, when the TV announcers review the big tournaments of this year’s golf season, you will notice that they list six events as key, if not major, events: Players, Masters, PGA, U.S. Open, British Open and the FedEx Cup, as if they were all equal. Rest assured that the hype will continue into next year.
>> 2. The PGA Championship might be the biggest winner, getting out of its last-major spot in August and into the earlier spot in May as now the second major of the season. This means that whoever wins the Masters will then have to win the PGA Championship next, if they have any designs on winning the Grand Slam (all four of the traditional four majors in the same year). The viewing public will be hungry each year to see if that can happen. By definition, the PGA includes only professional golfers, and it is worth noting that the PGA Championship maintains its identity as the tournament of the club pros’ association by having approximately 20 qualifying club-pro slots each year for the very folks who are the original reason for the tournament and the organization in the first place, dating back to 1916.
>> 3. The season-ending FedEx Cup tournaments, including the Tour Championship, are winners because they have moved up to August from their even more remote spot in September, and they get most of their action in before football season begins and steals their thunder. The Tour has also wisely cut the number of FedEx Cup tournaments from four to three, so as to better fit the schedule and not stretch the already exhausted viewing public with too much more golf at the end of the season. This field consists of only the most successful Tour Pros who qualify with points earned from their exceptional play over the entire season. The season champion is ultimately determined in the final tournament of the year: the Tour Championship.
Are there any losers in this restructuring? Not really, but there are a few things worth noting:
The Masters, golf’s traditional rite of spring, might no longer have quite the luster of being the grand opening of the golf season. This is because the Players Championship has usurped that role with its compelling position in the Florida sunshine in March. In addition, The Masters someday might have to deal with its image of having the weakest field of the majors. That is, The Masters invites only 90 to 100 participants, has a large contingent of amateurs and obscure foreign players and, lastly, has a legion of past winners, some of whom can hardly walk the 72 holes anymore. I mean, it’s a party, a reunion, and you don’t want to invite too many guests or folks the majority don’t know.
So, in truth, only about 30 players really have a chance to win The Masters, and we see those same names every year battling it out on the back nine on Sunday.
Nonetheless, the Masters seems likely to remain the “spiritual” beginning of the golf season, even if not the official kickoff.
Then there is the U.S. Open, now down the line as the fourth big tournament of the year instead of the second. It will still be our national championship, however, and the season will build toward it. The U.S. Open also has a strong field of players who have earned exemptions, as well as others who have had to go through rigorous local and regional qualifying to get to the big stage over Father’s Day weekend. Strong fields and tough courses are its hallmarks!
The British Open – or “The Open,” as the Brits prefer to call it – is in a class of its own with its broad international field, its sometimes royal and always ancient venues and its morning viewing time here in the United States, with viewers still in their pajamas sipping coffee rather than something stronger. Like the Masters, the British Open also values the presence of amateurs and also includes some lesser-known foreign players, so as to maintain its claim to being Planet Earth’s championship.
What could make the season even better?
The one thing that still needs to be addressed is the complexity of the FedEx scoring system. Right now the Tour Championship telecast requires a statistician standing up there repeatedly shuffling numbers on a board full of graphics to explain to viewers who is winning and why! Even the seasoned golf fan can get confused.
Somehow the scoring system has to be simplified so that the average golfer can understand it without the use of logarithms, a slide rule and an Ouija board.
All in all, however, big-time golf is in the best shape it has been in for decades. Congratulations to the PGA Tour and to all of the organizations that cooperated to make golf viewing more fun for all in 2019 and beyond.