In altered PGA Tour landscape, rookies are facing tougher road to rise up the ranks
Jake Knapp hits a shot during the first round of the Farmersr Open.
Like most golfers on the planet, Jake Knapp dreamed of one day playing the Pebble Beach Golf Links. He grew up in Southern California and competed in college at UCLA, but somehow never made it to the Monterey Peninsula to tour the likes of Pebble, Spyglass Hill and Spanish Bay.
Finally, Knapp thought he was going to get that chance. Last summer, he was well on his way to earning his first PGA Tour card with strong play on the Korn Ferry Tour—he finished 13th on the points list—and with the promotion he figured to get into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and walk that sublime property. It was going to be a just reward for a decade spent in golf’s minor leagues.
Then on Aug. 7, the tour announced that Pebble Beach was replacing the WM Phoenix Open as the third signature tournament on the West Coast Swing for 2024, and the changes to the decades-old event were massive. The field was slashed from 156 players competing alongside amateurs over three courses to only 80 pros and 80 amateurs on two courses (Pebble and Spyglass). The ams will only play 36 holes, and there’s no cut for the pros.
Knapp heard that news and his heart sunk. “I was pretty bummed,” he said. “That was one that I was looking forward to for a long time.”
Welcome to the new world and challenges for the tour’s rookie class. With the advent of the limited-field signature events, and the greater appeal to early season starts for veterans who are trying to claw their way into tournaments with $20 million purses, first-year card holders are feeling a bit anxious about their prospects.
Over the first seven weeks of the season in Hawaii and in the mainland’s West, only The American Express and this week’s Farmers Insurance Open offer full, 156-man fields, thanks to being played on more than one golf course. That has allowed 26 of the 28 tour rookies to play, but there were 12 starting spots lost at the Sony Open and 24 will be sacrificed in the Phoenix Open because those have single-course venues. The Sentry, Pebble Beach and Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club are all designated, so that leaves the most fortunate of rookies getting three starts before late February, when the tour moves on to Mexico, and then Florida and Puerto Rico, where a few more opportunities exist.
Former Walker Cup player Norman Xiong is a PGA Tour rookie this season.
The balky nature of the start doesn’t make it very easy to knock off the offseason competitive rust and get much of a rhythm going, especially for rookies, many of whom haven’t played even the courses at those tournaments they did get into.
“It definitely is tough,” said Norman Xiong, the former Walker Cup player who earned his first tour card with a win and 16th-place finish in points on the KFT last year. Speaking before last week’s The American Express, where he missed the cut despite shooting 12 under for three rounds, he added, “All of us are in this week and next week, which feels like this is our only two chances in the beginning stretch. It adds a lot of pressure to it.”
In Hawaii, Xiong was the first alternate, but he signed up for the Monday qualifier, played well and earned his way into the field. He made the cut, but got few points with a 79th-place finish.
“This is kind of a situation where you have to take whatever this gives you,” Xiong said. “You’re trying to be in your process, but not lose yourself in freaking out about what is and isn’t going to happen. You have to be open to whatever comes your way.”
Making it harder for most of the rookies who hail from the Korn Ferry Tour’s or from the five who advanced from the renewed PGA Tour Q School is that the top 10 players from the DP World Tour’s money list got their PGA Tour cards and are higher on the priority list. And one of those players has been the strongest performer so far, with Japanese 21-year-old Ryo Hisatsune notching a T-30 in Hawaii and T-11 in AmEx, and he was tied for second after the first round of the Farmers Open after shooting seven-under 65 on the Torrey Pines North Course.
The goal for any rookie is to get as many starts as possible and excel in those opportunities, which then moves players higher up on the priority list for filling the tournament fields. This season’s first of two reshuffles, when players are re-categorized, comes after the completion of the Valero Texas Open on April 7.
Predictably, the rookies have had only modest success in their first two events, with seven making the cut in each of them. The top-performing KFT graduate thus far has been 28-year-old University of Virginia product Jimmy Stanger, who notched a T-14 in The AmEx. Also off to solid starts are 24-year-old Jacob Bridgeman and 27-year-old Chandler Phillips, who finished T-39 and T-25, respectively, in The AmEx.
Chandler Phillips is off to a solild start in the 2024 season.
Numerous other rookies are still trying to find their way, including the 29-year-old Knapp, who tied for 70th in Hawaii and missed the cut in the desert.
Phillips, who won in the Bahamas last year on the KFT and posted five other top-10s, knows he won’t get another start until Mexico, short of a top-10 finish this week to advance into Phoenix. But the Texan who has a bit of twang in his voice is taking a rather pragmatic approach to the situation.
“If we do get three weeks on and three weeks off, I’d like that,” Phillips said. “Last year [on the KFT], we played seven straight, took one week off, and played another seven straight. I’d rather not play seven straight, but it’s hard to take any time off when you’re trying to get your tour card.”
There is virtually no chance that Phillips could put together those kind of road trips this year on the bigger tour, even if he wanted to.
Phillips shrugged his shoulders at how daunting this rookie start to the season might be. It’s simple, he surmised.
“Play good,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be playing opposite weeks and playing for less money. You’ve got to play good to get into the Masters, the U.S. Open, all of the majors. I don’t really see this as too big of a difference.”