Changes Beneath The Surface
Big-time professional golf, anchored by the PGA Tour, is an intricately constructed mosaic designed to bring the best players to the best courses for the right tournaments without upending the international circuits that produce an increasing supply of the world's elite. It's a marvel of coordination, painstakingly fine-tuned. Somehow, it usually works.
But not perfectly, which is why the whole megillah is under constant assessment and adjustment.
Over the years, some of the biggest tweaks have included the all-exempt tour in 1983, the Official World Golf Ranking in 1986, the World Golf Championships in 1999, the FedEx Cup in 2007 and the wraparound season in 2013-'14.
But for all the improvements, there's an underlying consensus that the golf season is too long, too crowded, too much the same from event to event, and irregularly paced. It starts at a crawl in the fall, crescendos briefly at Augusta before hitting another lull, then has a steady beat from the U.S. Open through the PGA Championship. However, the finale is an anticlimactic blur that mostly feels like a quixotic battle against the behemoths of pro and college football.
The ending never felt more cluttered than last year, when golf in the Summer Olympics for the first time in 112 years forced a scheduling squeeze culminating in a Rio-to-Ryder Cup rush that, while at times thrilling, was clearly going to be unsustainable for the game's stars, let alone the rank and file. The 2016-'17 wraparound season began only 11 days after the United States won the cup.
As golf has in the past, but with more self-awareness than ever, the game is responding with a proposed fix. On the surface, it seems straightforward: move the Players Championship from May back to March—where it was played for 30 consecutive years until 2007—and the PGA Championship from August to May. Of course, it won't be simple to agree on or execute, but if the change comes to pass—possibly as soon as the 2019-'20 season—the professional game will be condensed into a leaner and more logical product.
It will be the next big move, arguably bigger than all the others. One that might even finally provide that elusive feeling of completion, like the last satisfying click of a suddenly solved Rubik's Cube. Here's why.
Currently, after the PGA Championship concludes in mid-August, the tour plays four consecutive events that make up the FedEx Cup playoffs, concluding with the Tour Championship in late September (and followed almost immediately by the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup). But if the Players and the PGA could be moved to new dates, the Tour Championship could be completed by Labor Day. The net effect would be an important tournament highlighting each month from March through August in this sequence: Players, Masters, PGA, U.S. Open, Open Championship, Tour Championship. With its most important stroke-play tournaments finished before the audience-eating football season, golf would have the sports fan more to itself and presumably gain value as a television property.
What about the Ryder Cup? Whether it's moved up in September or retains the same finish in late September/early October, it would still bump into football. But the transcendent crossover event's ratings and buzz have proved it can flourish no matter the TV competition. The Presidents Cup, which has gained momentum over the years, hasn't been as successful but has proved feasible.
It’s clear that the PGA of America has less to gain and potentially more to lose by moving its championship from August to May.
FINDING A FIX
The new solution evolved out of two main tipping points. The first was the Olympics. Based on the seemingly unanimous opinion that getting golf in the Games served the greater good, the PGA willingly moved its championship at Baltusrol up two weeks, and the PGA Tour accepted the crunch that followed. But after the embattled Rio Games turned out well—it will be a surprise if the IOC doesn't vote this year to extend golf in the Olympics beyond 2020—creative minds began thinking about how to make the fit permanent, rather than scrambling with improvisations every four years.
The other tipping point is the momentum of having a new PGA Tour commissioner for the first time since 1994. Jay Monahan, 46, is naturally eager to assert his ideas. No accident that the PGA Tour was the first source of news stories about the proposal, and in Monahan's first interview as commissioner, given to the Wall Street Journal, he came on strong:
"That's certainly something that we would like to see happen," Monahan said of the changes. "Having big events every month, culminating in the FedEx Cup playoffs in August prior to the NFL season, that would be a very powerful schedule."
The territory marked and the point made, Monahan softened subsequent comments, emphasizing the collaboration needed for the proposal to fit into the larger picture. But it's clear that he will be the driver.
Dom Furore / Golf Digest
No wonder. The tour has the most to gain by the Players/PGA Championship change. There are business implications that administrators favor from a competitive and lifestyle perspective. The CliffsNotes version is popular with its players, especially when they learn that if the proposal were to take effect, Monahan has said it's "likely" that the FedEx playoffs will be reduced from four events to three. Even less-than-flush young journeymen feel hurried and worn out from the PGA Championship through the FedEx Cup, and stars are looking for more preparation time for big tournaments, or simply more time off. (The current FedEx deal ends this year but is expected to be renewed.)
"I like the change—I do," says Adam Scott, as if it is a fait accompli. The Australian, whose first big win was the 2004 Players, then played in March, said, "I thought it was great—back then, it felt like this is the start of important golf for the year. It still does have a big-tournament feel, but it's maybe unnecessarily searching for its identity there in May. And I definitely would like to see the PGA move to May. It won't be as hot at some of the places we have to go."
Speaking unofficially for regular winners in their mid-30s with children, Scott is particularly drawn to the idea of the season finishing by Labor Day. "We need to give everyone a break from PGA Tour golf," he says, "but we just seem to roll on week after week, month after month. I'd love to see the tour end and have a couple-month break where there's no golf and everyone gets really amped up for the new season."
Unmarried 20-something Rickie Fowler concurs: "It would be nice if we could get some sort of off-season." Jason Dufner sees only positives. "I'd like to see the Players go to March, when I think you get a better golf course that time of year—tougher, firmer, faster. The PGA, just kind of fit it in somewhere in the season as soon as possible. It'd be great to end the season by Labor Day. All the other professional sports have two to three months off. We don't have any time off."
Zach Johnson is against changing the order—"I'm a creature of habit"—but as a former Player Advisory Council member, he understands the importance of the tour presumably drawing higher television-rights fees with a product that does not compete with football. (The PGA Tour's contract with CBS, NBC and Golf Channel is up in 2021, though the tour can opt out of its deal with CBS and NBC in 2018; the PGA of America's contract with Turner and CBS is through 2019. ) "From a TV standpoint, which is really our No. 1 sponsor," Johnson says, "it makes sense."
There's irony here. For a long time, the tour's officials and players chafed at the Players being perceived as a tuneup for the Masters. Golf writers would come to Ponte Vedra Beach and spend much of their time writing Masters previews, thwarting the narrative that the Players be accepted as the fifth major. A sentiment grew that the tournament needed to get away from the Masters, becoming part of a sequence of majors and perhaps getting that status.
The Players remains a huge success, but players talk about the energy with spectators being higher in March, when many fans are on spring break or otherwise vacationing. Players also say that because the course played tougher in March—more blustery weather and less-manicured conditioning—it felt more like a major.
"I remember it as more gnarly," J.J. Henry says. "It tested you more." As for the previous annoyance about being perceived as a warm-up for the Masters, time has shown that the Players probably got more net attention in March than in early May, which is part of a relatively slow spot on the tour, and which frames the Players as a continuum between stops like Charlotte and Dallas rather than being the pinnacle of the Florida swing. It's highly doubtful there would be serious opposition to a return to March.
The PGA Championship is a different story. It's clear that the PGA of America has less to gain and potentially more to lose by moving its championship to May. Although in the '80s its championship was regularly mocked for its oppressive weather and the quality of its venues, the PGA worked hard in the '90s to reverse the perception, mostly by going to better courses, and is now proud and happy being the last of the four majors. In fact, the tour in 2013 asked the PGA Championship to drop the motto Glory's Last Shot, on the premise that the FedEx Cup playoffs afford the same. The PGA acquiesced, and now uses The Season's Final Major—at a time of year, by the way, that is discernibly bereft of sports competition, beyond baseball's dog days.
PGA CHAMPIONSHIP CONCERNS
Especially as Tiger Woods steadily gained on Jack Nicklaus' career totals, the four majors began to equalize in terms of historical importance. Something else happened: The chronological Grand Slam began to appear more doable, and the last slot gained currency. Woods made it all palpable by completing the Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters, and in 2002 he won the first two majors before being thwarted by a stormy Saturday at Muirfield. Jordan Spieth nearly won the first three legs in 2015, narrowly missing at St. Andrews. The PGA is hesitant to give up the chance to be the climactic theater for history. The championship would also see its options for possible venues reduced. May is problematic for the big-scale Golden Era classics like Oak Hill, Oakmont, Winged Foot, etc., that are most concentrated in the Northeast. Although the PGA's geographical identity is already more Sun Belt-connected than the U.S. Open, in May it would be forced to become more so.
Its target would become big footprints in big markets, especially in Florida, with Trump Doral probably the best-equipped facility in that state to host a major. The new Trinity Forest in Dallas would be intriguing, as well as potential sites in Arizona (Desert Mountain), Las Vegas (Shadow Creek) and Southern California (L.A. North). Maybe even the small-gallery, high-prime-time ratings temptations of Hawaii.
All of which means that when it comes to the potential move, the man with the hammer is PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua. He acknowledges that his organization began considering the possibility of moving the championship dates as soon as Olympic golf became a goal, but he also says evenly, "The good news is, we love the August date. It's working better than it ever has. We like the position we're in now. We don't need to do anything."
Which is true. When it came to Monahan's quasi-public negotiation, his go-to was pretty squishy. "Let me just say this," Monahan said at Kapalua in January. "Pete and the PGA of America have a tremendous focus on the 28,000 club professionals in our country. The golf season for a lot of people is more relevant early in the season than late in the season. So if you're focused on job creation and growth of the game, and really energizing the start of the participatory side and the professional side, that's something that might be interesting to you."
Bevacqua has some logistical concerns. He knows that the Olympics could force him to change the date of his championship every four years. That won't be the case in Tokyo in 2020, when the Olympic men's golf is scheduled to finish on Aug. 1, but it is likely to apply to future Games. His responsibility is to his organization and his championship and, above all, to do no harm.
But if Bevacqua and his board conclude that moving the PGA to May has no serious consequences, his choice comes down to whether he should help out the PGA Tour, and arguably, all of golf as an entertainment product that can stimulate the game. Essentially, to take one for the team. Although, warns PGA of America president Paul Levy: "We understand why the PGA Tour wants to get away from football, but that's not a driving force for us."
Bevacqua and Monahan genuinely get along, and they have a relationship that is better for golf if it remains close. If Bevacqua does Monahan a favor, he can expect one in return. If he doesn't, Monahan will no doubt understand, but their spirit of cooperation could undergo a chill.
Bevacqua could be swayed, like Monahan, at a time when change in golf is in the air. European Tour CEO Keith Pelley is shaking things up with new formats and fan-friendly experiments that traditionalists might mock, but his initial foray, which featured six-hole matches and a 90-yard sudden-death hole, was a success.
‘All the other professional sports have two to three months off. We don’t have any time off.’ —Jason Dufner
Players are thinking more creatively as well. When asked his opinion of new dates for the Players and the PGA, Henry took it as an opportunity to offer thoughts on how to improve the Fall Series, the often-forsaken string of tour events that go up against football. "What about making them 54 holes, and having them finish on Friday?" Henry says. "You might get more fans who love golf but can't make themselves give up their football weekends. And I bet you'd get more big-name players for the same reason. It wouldn't be the same grind and would be something fresh."
The same would be true of the Players and the PGA Championship going to strategic places on the calendar. Similar to the Olympics, the move is right for golf. The game and its leaders will have other Rubik's Cubes. But that last click on the current one would sure feel good.