In the PGA Tour’s new system, who will be on the outside looking in?
Right now, the future of the PGA Tour is up for debate, both in board meetings and around the water cooler, and especially on the grounds at TPC Sawgrass. But really, the future exists entirely on a computer, in thousands of simulations and dozens of slides of a powerpoint presentation. The models, if you will.
That’s what everyone is being sold right now with the Tour’s new Designated Events Model, which next year will have eight select big-money events played with smaller fields and with no cuts. You, me, James Hahn, Cameron Young, Jim Nantz, the folks running NBC, the CEO of Mastercard — all of us. We’re being asked — or rather, told — to trust the systems the Tour is putting in place. Do you like what you hear? Generally, I do. As Rory McIlroy told Golf Channel this week, the people making the decisions “are very competent.”
There’s a lot of faith there, which is good because the PGA Tour needs our faith for the next 12 months or so. Commissioner Jay Monahan knows it. “Will this model be perfect right out of the gate? Perhaps not,” Monahan said Tuesday afternoon. “But as we’ve done throughout our history and using the FedEx Cup as a prime example, we will listen, we will learn and we will adapt each year with the changing needs of our players, partners and fans.”
That last part isn’t bolstered by a ton of proof. It’s true there are many, many mouths to feed and keeping them all nourished isn’t easy. But part of the Tour’s need for drastic changes is the result of an inability to listen, learn and adapt in years past. The Tour has been more of a cruise ship, consumed by its inertia and unable to turn on a dime, rather than a nimble speed boat. See: turning the FedEx Cup Playoffs from a hard-to-understand points bonanza to… a handicapped tournament. That change was years in the making, and it has largely fallen flat with players, despite being easier to understand.
If the ball has been dropped in the last two weeks, it has been sheerly in communication. Slides from a deck that was finalized after a seven-hour board meeting have been shared with only the most important people right now: players, sponsors, broadcasters, some of it leaking to various media. But before that all happened, there was the initial report from Golfweek, leading many of the Tour membership to find out their future on Twitter.
Now that we’re on the other side of news leaks, the chase begins for the top 50 in the FedEx Cup. It’s worth analyzing the potential outcomes we’ve been sold on. Those simulations from an algorithm based on decades of previous Tour seasons have been made pretty public by Peter Malnati, a player director on the board.
The average future season, according to simulations by the models, calls for about 36% “churn” of the names in the top 50 of the FedEx Cup. Eighteen out and 18 in. That’s an equitable number, according to Malnati and the Tour policy board, and a much bigger number than what was desired by some elite players at the Delaware meeting in August. But since that is merely an average, we can infer a couple things. According to the model, there will be future seasons where the churn is 44%, a victory for those on the outside looking in. And for every one of those seasons, there will be one with only 28% churn.
What happens if the latter comes first? Like next year. There’s plenty of bitterness on display right now, while the changes are ratified and explained to the membership, even with another six months of FedEx Cup points on offer. What happens when 36 of the top 50 from 2023 automatically qualify to play all the big-money events in 2025? Stating it doesn’t imply that it’s likely, only that it’s possible. And that possibility would further embolden the many pros irked right now, taking to Twitter with a notes-app screenshot and to Instagram in petty comments.
Another comment from McIlroy to Golf Channel felt important. When asked if the Tour felt unified Tuesday morning, he paused, hemmed and hawed, and eventually said “no” before admitting that, ultimately, those upset will have to “shoot the scores.” McIlroy always delivers his sentences in an extremely thoughtful manner, but it’s still a harsh message that some in the membership are receiving this week. Your good might not be good enough.
Regardless of the amount of churn, discourse about the system is headed down a path of deciphering between the values of a top 10 and a top 5. Between a season with four top 8s and another with 10 missed cuts but two top 3s. Or a top 5 at the no-cut Genesis Invitational vs. at the full field Valspar Championship. How does a win at the Puerto Rico Open compare to a 2nd-place finish behind Jon Rahm at Bay Hill? The FedEx Cup point distribution won’t see much of a difference, and those type of hypotheticals are already top of mind for Tour pros, almost a full year before the new system becomes a reality. Viewpoints are only going to harden into place when we find out who Mr. 51 is.