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PGA Tour’s differentiated schedule provides identity, context as product continues to move forward

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Only two of the top 30 players in the world were in the 2023 Honda Classic field this past weekend. That’s peanuts compared to the two PGA Tour tournaments that preceded it: the Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational. Yet because of the Tour’s new structure, all three events had an identity as well as the consequential context that’s often eluded the league and may, in fact, be why it’s in its current position. 

Let me explain.

The tournaments at Phoenix and Riviera were title fights. First Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Nick Taylor battled down the stretch at TPC Scottsdale — the former two for a chance to add to their borderline historic resumes and the latter for a life-changing victory. The following week at Riviera, Rahm tussled with Max Homa and Keith Mitchell. Homa and Rahm were going for their third win of the season (and Player of the Year driver’s seat) while Mitchell was vying for the biggest victory of his life.

Though Phoenix and Riviera were not substantially different in terms of field strength or perception than the year before, the Tour’s new mandate that all the top players play in the top 13 events solidified both of those events as big-time, big-ticket weeks.

The Honda Classic came down to Chris Kirk, who had not won in eight years, and Eric Cole, who was ranked No. 330 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Hardly heavyweights, but they were playing within the context of something bigger than themselves. No matter the players, that’s extremely compelling golf.

The PGA Tour has a uniformity problem. It, understandably, wants every event to be the same. It pushes for its tournaments to look similarly across nearly 50 weeks of the year. This has massive (and quite obvious) problems. Somewhat humorously, the emergence of LIV Golf has pushed the Tour’s members (i.e. the players) to attempt to solve them.

Though it is not explicit, the PGA Tour is now actually two tours: the 13 elevated events and everything else. This sounds like a bad thing, but it actually serves to contextualize the entire league. This reality, though implicit for now, does two very important things for the Tour. 

Provides identity

One thing that the PGA Tour has sometimes lacked over the years is an identity for its tournaments. Sometimes Justin Thomas would win the Honda Classic. Sometimes Matt Jones would. You know what the Honda Classic is now? A launching pad for somebody’s career. You could argue that this has always been the case, but the reality is that events like the Honda have always been a mixed bag of big stars and others trying to make their way. Ironically (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), it seems as if completely removing all of the stars — because they are obligated to play in many other events — has helped the Honda and tournaments like it.

This may not be universally true. Is it good in the short term for the Tour’s TV contracts and partnerships with sponsors? Probably not. The Honda Classic rating won’t be very good, and Honda is leaving as a sponsor after this year anyway (possibly because of the fact that its field rating has dropped off the planet). However, in the long term, the Tour’s product is becoming better for the following reason.

Context is king

You know what the PGA Tour’s most important asset is? Major championships. The majors provide context for the PGA Tour and vice versa. In a meritocratic sport like golf, context is everything, and it’s why LIV has not thrived and likely won’t as a golf league. Now you’re starting to see a real through line. The Korn Ferry Tour feeds into the non-elevated events, which feed into the elevated events, which feed into the major championships. One provides context for the other. This is a good thing! The non-elevated events have an opportunity to become what everyone thought the Korn Ferry Tour could be.

Things are not perfect for the Tour. It needs to provide better clarity around how you move from a non-elevated event to an elevated event. That would bring even deeper context to tournaments like the Honda Classic. It needs to clean up its field qualification categories. It needs to fix its FedEx Cup points situation to perhaps mirror purse sizes. It needs to detail how its events are going to work in unison with each other. It probably needs to draw a sharper line differentiating between non-elevated and elevated events.

Again, there are downsides to all of this in the short term. But in the long term, it’s a great way to create a better product, which actually seems to be happening. Whether that’s because of LIV’s existence or the Tour’s own steps doesn’t much matter at this point. What does matter is that fans (especially the ones who pay the closest attention) are seemingly going to benefit from the improvement of the Tour’s overall product.

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