In a year in which the PGA Tour has differentiated the best tournaments from everything else more than ever before, one of the lesser-heralded events on the schedule has its best field in years.
Wait … what?!
It’s true. Five of the top 10 players in the world and 10 of the top 20 will tee it up at The American Express this week in Palm Springs, California. That includes Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Will Zalatoris along with Tony Finau, Tom Kim and Cameron Young. It is by far the most star power this event has seen in a long time.
So why is this happening? Well, I have a theory on that. To be eligible for last year’s Player Impact Program money, top players will be required to play at least 12 of 13 elevated events and three non-elevated events this season, though one of those three could have been played in the fall. In addition to the four majors, this comes out to 18, 19 or 20 events needed between now and the end of the season to satisfy those requirements.
For example: If a player didn’t play in the fall (like Will Zalatoris) and also plays all the elevated events, he’ll be making 20 starts between Jan. 1 through the Tour Championship. If a player did play once in the fall but then plays every elevated event in 2023, he’ll play 19. If a player played once in the fall and skips his allotted one elevated event in 2023 (Rory McIlroy has already done both), he’ll only play 18.
Regardless, players are slated for 18-20 PGA Tour events (including majors) in 2023. Where this gets interesting is that last year the current top 10 players in the world (not including Cameron Smith) played an average of only 18 PGA Tour events (including majors) in the 2021-22 season. McIlroy, for example, played 15.
For some players — like McIlroy — that number will be going up significantly in 2023, and though he specifically is not playing The American Express, I think this signals why more top players are adding an event early in the year before the schedule gets jammed up in March, April and May as well as before they’re traveling internationally in the summer.
Jon Rahm, who has played this tournament often in the past, agreed.
“You want to beat the best,” said Rahm. “And I’m glad people are coming. It’s good that more players are trying more events. I think it’s due to the some of the new events going on during the year. The fact that we have all those big events that we have to play if we want to earn that PIP reward. That opens up to all those three, let’s say lower events that you need to play, it opens peoples’ eyes to maybe some events they haven’t played in the past because your schedule changes a little bit. I know I’m one of those.
“It actually kind of tied me up later on the year. So this event really serves a lot of purpose in more than one way. So I don’t think I’m the only one thinking that. I know Patrick [Cantlay] has been coming here. He almost won here a few years ago as well. So there’s a lot of big names that always come. But it’s good to see more players. Like I said, courses are always in perfect shape, perfect condition. It’s a great, great way to come and tune-up everything you need.”
The numbers for Rahm don’t change significantly. He played once in the fall of 2021 and then 18 times in 2022 for a total of 19. He played once in the fall of 2022 and, I presume, will play either 18 or 19 times throughout 2023. What does change for him, however, are the options. Now he knows he has to play eight elevated events in three months from the beginning of February through the middle of May. That’s a grueling stretch, and to be fresh for the season-ending playoffs, players will likely take more time off in the summer after the Open Championship. So it makes sense for them to front load the non-elevated tournaments they’re required to play to collect last year’s cash.
This is an intriguing development. I presumed that non-elevated tournaments like this week’s American Express would experience much worse fields, but actually the opposite has happened in this case. That won’t be true of every non-elevated event, but the relatively small scheduling shift and reduction of options for top players has certainly benefited everybody interested in this event in Palm Springs.