RIP, World Golf Championships: A eulogy to the global series in its final days
Getty Images/Graphic: Darren Riehl
Fellow golf fans, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life and times of a special set of tournaments.
At their peak, these events attracted the best players in the world and served as a dazzling showcase of their power. There were massive romps, tightly contested battles and champions hailing from Australia, Fiji, Europe and beyond.
Were the tournaments flawed? Of course they were — but aren’t we all? They never quite lived up to their original intent, yet that didn’t diminish the quality of the fields and the competition.
For several years, only the majors were superior, in terms of history and prestige. The prizes for our beloved contests were huge, and the trophies honored the legends of the game.
Today, though, these tournaments’ fate is unknown. This week, in Austin, we might be witnessing their final chapter, as they make way for “designated” events that have the same goal but aren’t nearly as open to all.
In an ironic twist, they’re being replaced at the same time as the reincarnation of the very thing they sought to defeat — a Greg Norman-backed rival league — has threatened the PGA Tour.
After 24 years, dear friends, the World Golf Championships have run their course.
How the WGCs came to be
The WGCs were born as a counter from then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to Greg Norman’s failed attempt at starting a World Golf Tour in 1994.
Two years later, the PGA Tour formed the International Federation of PGA Tours by joining forces with the European, Australasian, Japanese and South African tours.
The statement was clear: International golf goes through Ponte Vedra, Fla.
Norman was irate. As the late golf writer Tim Rosaforte documented for Sports Illustrated, Norman chased down Finchem at the Presidents Cup shortly after the announcement.
“I told him I was irritated with him,” he told Roseforte of the encounter. “I’ve had it up to here with Tim Finchem. It’s the end of the rope for me. He hung me out to dry.”
Norman claimed Finchem told him he would be kept in the loop, but he didn’t end up hearing about the formation of the federation until the announcement.
“I asked him, ‘How long have you known about this?'” Norman said. “He said, ‘About a month.’ I said, ‘F— you.’ Believe me, I’m hot about this one. I told him, ‘You’ve lost me.'”
At the inaugural WGC two and a half years later, however, Norman, at least publicly, seemed more content with how things had shaken out.
“I feel good about it because I can see a lot of the ideas that I had and the dreams that I had starting to take place,” he said in February 1999. “I think it is good for the game of golf. It is necessary for the game of golf because there is enough great players now in a global basis that we do really need to see the players playing against each other on a more of a consistent basis.”
Norman, then the 29th-ranked player in the world, lost in the second round of the WGC-Match Play that week to Eduardo Romero. Jeff Maggert defeated Steve Pate on the 38th hole in the finals to become the first WGC champion.
Tiger Woods won three of the next four individual WGCs and, paired with David Duval, the first of the seven World Cups played under the WGC moniker.
Woods’ dominance in the WGCs is unmatched. He won 18 individual WGC titles and left golf fans with a host of indelible moments.
Among those enduring memories is his approach on the 72nd hole of the 2000 WGC-NEC Invitational, his ball falling out of the darkness on top of the pin. With flash bulbs going off like a red-carpet entrance, Woods tapped in the ensuing two-footer for an 11-stroke win, the largest margin of any WGC victory.
It was his second of eight wis at the WGC-Invitational (last known as the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, but perhaps more commonly remembered as the WGC-Bridgestone and WGC-NEC Invitational).
At the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Stephen Ames drew Woods when Ames was the last man in the field. When asked about the matchup, Ames said of his 10-time-major-winning opponent: “Anything can happen, especially where he’s hitting the ball.”
Woods promptly throttled Ames, 9 and 8.
When asked afterward about his reaction to Ames’ comments, Woods responded with a simple, yet eviscerating three-word phrase by which the match would become known by.
“9 and 8.”
Woods didn’t win the event that year, but on three other occasions he did come away with the Walter Hagen Cup, the Wedgewood trophy awarded to the champion.
For all his WGC success, Woods did not win each of the four individual WGC crowns. But Dustin Johnson did. Johnson’s six WGC titles — the second most to Woods — spanned seven years, coming in 2013, ’15, ’16, ’17 (two wins) and ’19.
‘Difficult to foresee’
It’s fitting that the WGC-HSBC Champions will be the last holdover from the WGC era. The uncertainty about the future of that event mimics the uncertainty about how that event fits into the WGC ecosphere to begin with.
When the event was promoted to WGC status in 2009, it was still not an official money event on the PGA Tour. Even stranger is that only from 2010 on were victories in that event counted as official PGA Tour wins (sorry, 2009 winner Phil Mickelson!). But that didn’t include Francesco Molinari and Martin Kaymer’s wins in 2010 and ’11, respectively, because neither was a PGA Tour member at the time.
Finally, in 2013, after the WGC-Champions became Ian Poulter’s first stroke-play PGA Tour win, the event was made a full-fledged PGA Tour event, awarding the winner a three-year membership.
One of the flaws of the World Golf Championships: for too many years it missed on the World part. In 2017, when the WGC-Championship moved from its longtime home at Doral, in Florida, to Mexico, it was the first time half of the events were held internationally.
Today, the future of the WGC-Champions — and by extension the WGCs — is uncertain. It hasn’t been played since 2019 due to Covid-19 concerns in China.
At the Players Championship earlier this March, on the heels of an announcement signaling the final year of the WGC-Match Play, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was asked about the fate of the WGCs and if they had run their course.
He said the only remaining contract was the one with the WGC-HSBC Champions.
“We’ve not played there in three years, and it’s difficult to foresee when we would play,” Monahan said.
“I would never say anything has run its course. But I think right now you see the direction the PGA Tour heading in. It is with these designated events; it’s with the concentration of the best players on the PGA Tour competing in them, and I don’t really, I really don’t expect that to change as we go forward.”
The Tour has not yet responded to a request for further comment on the status of the event.
And then there was one
This year, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the very thing that is likely to vanquish the WGCs: a designated event.
The first two WGCs to meet their end were the Championship and the Invitational.
In 2021, the Championship couldn’t be played in Mexico because of the pandemic, so it was moved to Florida, with Workday coming in at the last moment to sponsor. There was no fanfare over its demise. The tournament simply wasn’t included in the 2022 Tour schedule.
The Invitational was moved from its longtime home at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, to Memphis when the title sponsorship was taken over by FedEx in 2019, effectively replacing the previous FedEx-St. Jude Classic.
The WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational lasted just three years before FedEx moved its sponsorship to the Northern Trust, moving that event again to Memphis, and defuncting the WGC-Invitational.
That left just the Match Play on the schedule for the 2021-22 season, with the WGC-HSBC Champions on the docket for fall 2022. But on July 6 the Champions was canceled again, with no indication of when it would be played again.
“We have worked with all Tours, as well as the China Golf Association, on the viability of hosting the WGC-HSBC Champions this fall, but unfortunately the logistical implications forced the difficult decision to cancel the event,” Christian Hardy, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president, international, said in a statement at the time.
Thus began the final march toward the likely death of the World Golf Championships as a whole.
WGC = Designated
In early 2022, Norman and his World Golf Tour concept was resurrected in the form of LIV Golf. The Saudi-backed league had already held its first two events in the U.S. and was siphoning talent from the PGA Tour.
You know this part by now: the Tour announced the 2023 schedule; the Wilmington players meeting happened; and the Tour revised the schedule, creating the elevated events, which are now called Designated events.
The purpose of the Designated events ? Get the best players in the world together more often. Sound familiar? It should because it is exactly when Norman and Finchem wanted to do in the 90s.
The catch is, unlike the WGCs, which had direct avenues for non-Tour members and top players from other qualifying tours, the Designated events in 2023, do not.
This week’s defending champion, Scottie Scheffler, saw that as a hindrance to the WGC model.
“The part that didn’t make a lot of sense to me about the WGCs was all the other tours that were out here,” he said Tuesday. “I understand it’s a World Golf Championship, and you want to get the best players from the world, but I think the PGA Tour’s always been a place where those players gathered.
“For instance, when I was coming off the Korn Ferry Tour, and I looked at some of the fields in the WGCs and they were getting guys from — I hate to pick on the Sunshine Tour, but Sunshine Tour, like Australia Asian Tour. There were a lot of ancillary tours out there that were getting into these events, and I was like, Well, I’m playing here in the States and I’m playing really good. Like, we should also get an opportunity.”
In February, then-World No. 32 Thomas Pieters complained on Twitter during the week of the Genesis Invitational — the third Designated event of the year — about not making the field because he was not a member of the Tour.
Four days later, he officially joined LIV Golf.
That scenario appears to have been corrected by changes to the Designated events for 2024, which will see all of the top 50 players in the world eligible, no matter their Tour membership.
But unlike what was in place for the WGCs, there won’t be exemptions for leaders on other tours around the world.
Still, the similarities outnumber the differences. Most of next year’s Designated events — with the exception of the majors, which the PGA Tour does not run, and the Players — will be limited-field, no-cut events, just like the WGCs.
But what of match play?
It became offcial earlier this month, the Monday of Players Championship week, that this would be the final year of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
With the end of the WGC-Match Play after this week, there’s a void in the Tour schedule: no more match play outside of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
Monahan said at the Players that creating a new match-play event wasn’t in the cards for the 2024 schedule, which still has yet to be released. But he did say it would be a consideration moving forward.
“Match play has been a staple out here. It’s been a staple on the DP World Tour,” he said. “I think that there’s — that will certainly be a consideration as we go forward.”
The best match-play format to use on the Tour has been hotly debated since its inception. The WGC-Match Play started as a traditional 64-man, single-elimination bracket.
This led to challenges because there were chances the best players could have a bad round and not make the weekend, or even past Wednesday. Scheffler said Tuesday there are fiscal challenges when only 16 pros are guaranteed to play the weekend.
The structure was tweaked in 2015, following a format similar to the FIFA World Cup where players are split into 16 groups of four with each group having one player seeded 1–16, 17–32, 33–48 and 49–64.
The round-robin format continues from Wednesday to Friday, then goes to a 16-man knockout bracket on the weekend where two rounds were played Saturday, followed by the semis and finals on Sunday.
The format may have been a slog at times, with the top four finishers playing seven rounds in five days, but some players say they enjoy the change of pace.
“It’s just a unique form of play compared to what we normally do,” Rickie Fowler said Tuesday, adding he’d not be averse to seeing the single-elimination bracket back in play again. “Match play, other than what we see in team events, it’s fun. We obviously wouldn’t want it every week, just because of how volatile it is, and it’s not always the guy that’s playing the best that week. You can hit someone that gets hot for that day and knocks that person out. But yeah, I love match play. I would love to see a form of it be in the future on the Tour.”
World No. 2 Jon Rahm said he could understand why the tournament is difficult to find a sponsor for. He said how it’s possible a hospitality area might only get to watch 15 minutes of play on Sunday.
But he still thinks the players would enjoy having a regular match-play event remain on the schedule.
“It’s really the only time throughout the year besides maybe the Ryder Cup where you’re playing truly against the person in front of you,” Rahm said. “Usually it’s very much about you minding your own business and hopefully beating the other 150 players in the field. It’s fun. It’s a lot more aggressive. You see more birdies. You see a lot of things happen.”