Outside of Tiger Woods winning five times, it’s hard to imagine a better start to a new era for the PGA Tour than what the league has experienced thus far in 2023.
With this week’s Players Championship a de facto summit for the sprawling Tour, it’s worth looking back at everything that’s happened over the first two months of the season.
The year kicked off with Collin Morikawa kicking away his best opportunity to win for the first time since the 2021 Open Championship. Jon Rahm took the Sentry Tournament of Champions then looked like he might take everything in sight. He won the American Express and almost won at Torrey Pines, too. Max Homa lifted the Farmers Insurance Open trophy instead.
Rahm, now the No. 1 player in the world, battled Scottie Scheffler down the stretch but ultimately lost to the defending champion at the WM Phoenix Open a week before taking the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in the best field of the year to date. Two weeks later, Scheffler almost got his second victory of the year over Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland, but they were all bested by underdog Kurt Kitayama at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Do I have your attention yet?
“Competitively, we have seen a supercharged first two months of the year,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “It’s clear that the PGA Tour stars have been inspired by the opportunity to compete head-to-head more regularly on some of golf’s biggest stages. Over the last month, we have seen the top position in the Official World Golf Ranking ranking change hands on consecutive weeks from Rory to Scottie to Jon, who now sits at the top.”
Netflix documentary “Full Swing” debuted in the middle of all of this to such success that, on Tuesday while Monahan and the Tour’s stars were speaking with the media at TPC Sawgrass, the streaming service announced “Full Swing” was renewed for a second season.
It’s hard to call all of this anything but a raving success.
This is all going according to plan. The Tour mandated its top players participate in its top events this year. And while fields at Phoenix, Riviera and Bay Hill haven’t been demonstrably different from 2022 and years prior, those weeks — even if only because they were tabbed as the biggest weeks — had more gravity to them.
“This is what fans want, and this is what fans have been asking for,” added Monahan. “Here’s a data point: Consider the last five years on the PGA Tour. What percentage of the top 10, top 20, top 30 players in the world compete, on average, against one another at a major championship? The answer: More than 95%. What about those same top players competing together at the remaining PGA Tour events? Answer: less than 40%. Let me repeat that: less than 40%.”
Interestingly — and perhaps this is an aside — the Tour is moving away from designated events being mandatory for top players; it is also reducing field sizes and eliminating cuts at several such tournaments in 2024. Could this serve as a special, one-off year for fans of the best, most contextualized golf in the world?
It certainly might. Events in 2024 may or may not have the weight they have in 2023 given the lack of a cut and the 70-80 players who will be playing in them. That remains to be seen.
There is plenty of hope for the future of the PGA Tour. Limiting fields (pushing some players into all the other events, which sponsors want) and removing cuts (fans and sponsors want to see the biggest names on the weekend) makes sense on the whole, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most desirous outcome for fans.
What doesn’t remain to be seen is whether this season is going to be great. It already has been. As it turns out, getting all the best players together at historic venues with tons of context makes a difference in the product, and the Tour has done exactly that in 2023.
The Players, coincidentally, used to be the only stop on the Tour in which that happened. Now it’s one of many.
So while this week’s event may look less unique than usual, it’s actually representative of a stronger future for the PGA Tour — one in which the best players in the world are playing the best events. A near-Players ever few weeks.
That’s a testament to the importance of this tournament and a vision for the future that engenders a whole lot of optimism.