The PGA Tour solidifiedon Wednesday, and yes, it does somewhat resemble some of the structure LIV Golf has put into place.
The Tour has reduced the field size at its designated events from 120-160 to 70-80 and even eliminated the cut at some of them (though that is not yet finalized). It has also clarified the path for golfers to play these designated events and no longer made it mandatory for top players to enter those tournaments, rather incentivizing them to do so through purse size and FedEx Cup points scoring opportunities.
Is all of this good? Perhaps, though it depends on what your definition of the word. The entire sweeping infrastructure is one massive balancing act that is probably underappreciated. The Tour and its leadership are trying to keep several distinct constituents content, and oftentimes, decisions that please one of those groups will irritate another.
I’ll say this: The Tour went for it all with this plan. It not only tried to push the league into the future but did so while keeping its entire history intact. That’s ambitious, and while parts of the plan are perhaps not what some folks wanted in this “build me my own algorithm and make it as specific to my desires as possible” culture, the plan put forth seems like it’s going to work.
Let’s dive deeper into the PGA Tour’s decision.
1. This is not simply LIV 2.0: Several golfers who exited stage left to LIV last year spent Wednesday dunking on the Tour, its players and its fans because the Tour, they claim, is just recreating what LIV instituted a year ago. The official LIV Golf account even got a shot up at one point.
In reality, the structure of the PGA Tour’s designated events for 2024 is notably different than what LIV has in place.
There could be turnover of 15-20 golfers from one designated event to the next. The Tour has said the top 50 from the previous year’s FedEx Cup race are the only golfers guaranteed spots in designated events. From there, 15-25 spots are available for other players with 10 coming from the current year’s FedEx Cup race and five coming from the non-designated events.
This is unquestionably the best part of the entire system because it preserves the meritocracy of the game and the league. Furthermore, the projected year-over-year churn is 40%. That’s significant. As Rory McIlroy pointed out, if you’re a top player and you don’t play well (i.e. Rickie Fowler over the last few years), you’re not going to be in the top tournaments anymore. This is drastically different than LIV. Why? (1) LIV has no week-to-week churn. (2) LIV only replaces four of its 48 spots (less than 10%) year over year, and even those spots won’t be abdicated by players under contract (i.e. Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau).
2. Reduced fields, no cuts are tethered: Max Homa explained one reason why there will only be 70-80 golfers in each designated event: If the field size was extended well beyond that, the fields at the non-designated events would be egregiously poor. (Did you watch the Honda Classic last week?) As Homa further noted, poor fields could lead to some of those events ceasing to exist.
The tradeoff are designated event fields at a size that makes it difficult to feature a cut line. It would simply be awkward. There are also sponsor reasons to consider.
“It keeps the stars there for four days,” he said. “You ask Mastercard or whoever it is to pay $20 million for a golf event, they want to see the stars at the weekend. They want a guarantee that the stars are there. So, if that’s what needs to happen, then that’s what happens.”
This is where it gets a little — to use a phrase from last year — “have your cake and eat it, too” for me. The Tour is betting its future on meritocracy, and yet, it’s also pandering to the commercialization of the sport. Again, it is extremely difficult to please everyone.
Would it be that difficult to add 20 players to the field, pushing it to 90-95 golfers, and institute a cut down to 50 on the weekend like the Masters? That would create more consequential shots on Thursday and Friday and develop a scenario where making the cut is more special and meaningful than it was before.
3. The FedEx Cup is now relevant: This rolls two ways. If you’re among the top 10 of players who have not automatically qualified for designated events (the top 50 from the previous year’s FedEx Cup), then you’re into that week’s designated event. This now makes the FedEx Cup worth tracking in January and February. And that’s a massive positive. Then, when it comes down to the end of the season, suddenly getting inside the top 50 so you can automatically qualify for the next year’s designated events will be a massive achievement creating exciting storylines down the stretch.
4. “LIV did this”: It did … but that doesn’t mean LIV gets to be celebrated because of it. Here’s Rory from Wednesday: “Like it or not, LIV have exploited maybe some weaknesses of what the Tour’s framework was, and we’re trying to do things to rectify that.”
LIV is still a faction in the golf world, one that threatens to shatter an already niche audience to the point that the commercialization of the professional game is unviable. That is mutually exclusive of the reformatting the PGA Tour as undertaken. While LIV may have engendered some of these changes, it’s the changes themselves that should be appreciated, not the entity that brought them about.
5. Get hot, baby: The best aspect of the entire structure (and it’s not even close) is that a golfer can have a hot month and find himself mixing it up with the big dogs at the top events. There’s a real pyramid now on Tour. And while I wish the top of that pyramid was a bit wider, I’m glad for the overall composition.
“You don’t have to wait an entire year for your good play to then get the opportunity,” said McIlroy. “That opportunity presents itself straight away. You play well for two or three weeks, you’re in a designated event. If you keep playing well, you stay in them.”
The Tour with this rule may have actually helped elevate the non-designated events, at least as it relates to the way sickos like me consume them, even more than the designated ones. The Tour should feel free to take it a step further, too. Open it up so Korn Ferry Tour players can play their way into the non-designated events and then potentially the designated ones. This would really lean into the U.S. Open ideal: “Hey, anyone can get to the top, just play a little bit better.” And it would make golf even more compelling.
6. The balancing act: The most difficult part of these changes is operating a meritocracy alongside a business, especially when a pure meritocracy may not be the best thing for your business.
“At the end of the day, I think with all these designated events and this event schedule, at the end of the day we’re selling a product to people,” McIlroy said. “The more clarity they have on that product and knowing what they’re buying is really important. It’s really important for the Tour. I think this solves for that.”
It’s true that the Tour is an entertainment product in ways the majors are not, and it has broadly done a good job of holding the entertainment and competition aspects in tension with one another. However, that’s going to be a constant battle in the months ahead with every conceivable constituent vying for a bigger piece of the $1.5 billion pie.
7. No longer mandatory: One fascinating aspect that got a bit overlooked is the Tour no longer making designated events mandatory for the top players. It was able to make this alteration because it actually created a structure in which top players are incentivized to play the these events.
While the Tour yet to announce the altered FedEx Cup points structure, in a memo sent to players, commissioner Jay Monahan noted that there will be additional FedEx Cup points allocated to the designated events. This eliminates the need for golfers to play the worst events in order to defeat less-talented fields and rake in FedEx Cup points. It makes the entire FedEx Cup stronger as a result.