Sunday’s PGA Tour supergroup could be the norm — but the players voted against it
Sunday at the RBC Canadian Open was, by nearly every measurement, a stunning success. But perhaps it’s more accurate to call it what it really was: a lucky break.
After a week of LIV Golf controversy, the final round in Toronto was the distraction the PGA Tour desperately needed. There was a little bit of everything — a tightly contested tournament, a heavily invested crowd, a star-studded leaderboard.
The final group, the one that would eventually decide the tournament, was at the center of everyone’s attention, and for good reason. It featured three of the Tour’s biggest homegrown stars — Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau — each of which entered Sunday in the thick of contention. It was the kind of atmosphere that makes for an easy afternoon for the TV networks, the kind of atmosphere that, McIlroy later pointed out, makes the PGA Tour great.
“It feels really good with all the things that were going on in the world of golf this week,” McIlroy said. “For the Canadian Open, a national championship, to have a week like it’s had, three of the best players in the world going at it down the stretch, trying to win in front of those crowds and that atmosphere.”
For CBS, the group was a gift from the ratings gods. In Thomas, McIlroy and Finau, the network had something it almost never does: a superstar trio actively trading blows coming down the stretch. Weeks like this only come around every so often, which, it turns out, is part of a problem PGA Tour pros have shown little interest in fixing.
Though the PGA Tour regularly creates superstar-laden groups for its early-week rounds, a longstanding Tour tradition holds that weekend rounds are decided by merit. Those with the worst scores play first, while those with the best scores play last. Tiebreakers, however, are decided differently. When two players are tied on the leaderboard, the following day’s times are decided by a system called first-in, last-out (or FILO) — the tied player who finished their round first tees off last, and vice versa.
For TV networks, FILO has long been a thorn in the side — an arbitrary rule with the very real effect of spoiling superstar weekend pairings and hurting ratings. Last year, those frustrations finally boiled over. In the first year of multi-billion-dollar, decade-long rights deals, Tour leadership approached its constituents about abolishing FILO once and for all as the tee time tiebreaker.
The networks proposed a new system in which weekend tiebreakers would be decided in a different way. Rather than relying on FILO’s randomness to create pairings, the networks wished to decide weekend tiebreakers by FedEx Cup ranking points.
By sports television standards, the idea was surprisingly tame. Networks employ entire programming departments to “rig” schedules to reach the most eyeballs. Just a few years ago, the NFL enacted a far more subjective system of ratings-juicing — the “flex schedule” — which allows the league to unilaterally move desirable games into primetime slots. CBS and NBC’s idea, by comparison, sought only to change the metric that broke the tie.
In February, 2021, the Tour brought the idea to the Player Advisory Committee, a 16-player council that votes on proposed changes on behalf of the membership. If the PAC approves the idea, the Tour Policy Board (a mixture of players who have served on the PAC and business leaders) would also vote to enact the rule. A few weeks after the meeting, which took place during the Genesis Invitational, a summary of the PAC decision was shared to all Tour members.
“Over the years, our network partners have approached the Tour requesting an improvement to the way we pair players tied at a certain score for rounds three and four,” the memo read. “The PAC reviewed this proposal and did not support changing to a FedEx Cup-based system. The policy of ‘first in, last out’ will remain in place for groupings after the cut is made.”
It’s not entirely clear what’s responsible for Tour players’ apprehension toward a new system, be it familiarity with a longstanding rule or something more serious, like competitive integrity. It’s obvious, however, that the Tour’s broadcast partners aren’t the only ones who stand to lose from the same old system.
“It gives you a lot of confidence to know that, just to see where your game stacks up against the best,” McIlroy said of his Sunday supergroup. “JT’s coming off winning his second major at the PGA Championship. He’s won I think 15 times on Tour. He’s done a lot in the game. Tony as well. Like Tony’s struggled a little bit the last sort of six to 12 months, but he seems to have really turned it around. He had a good finish at Colonial, had another good finish here.”
Ironically, Sunday’s supergroup might provide FILO’s best defense to date. Under the networks’ proposed rule, the McIlroy-Thomas-Finau group would have been a dream of the past. Sam Burns — who entered Sunday tied with Thomas and ranks one slot higher than him in the FedEx Cup rankings — would have slotted in next to McIlroy and Finau. But for the Sam Burns fans out there, it would have been a chance to see their man size up against world-beaters like they’ve never seen before. But in a less chaotic scenario, if Alex Smalley had just finished his round earlier than Burns or Thomas, he would have been in the final group alongside McIlroy and Finau. That’s Alex Smalley, World No. 176 at the time.
As golf’s biggest stars so often remind us, success is driven by good processes, not necessarily good results. The system proposed by golf’s television partners represents a cohesive (and easy) solution to improve the Tour’s entertainment process. At a time when the sport as we know it is under siege, perhaps that’s a change worth listening to.
Sure, it might have cost golf this weekend’s supergroup, but on the PGA Tour, one result doesn’t make you a success. At best, it makes you lucky.