ORLANDO, Fla. – Wednesday’s two-page memo to PGA Tour players from commissioner Jay Monahan laid out in rough detail the future of the circuit. But for the visual learners in the crowd, the last 96 hours is a much clearer representation of where the game is headed.
Late Sunday in the South Florida twilight, Chris Kirk ended an eight-year victory drought in a dramatic playoff against equally-inspired rookie Eric Cole at the former Honda Classic. It was, given the Tour’s new designated world, a best-case scenario for a “have-not” tournament.
Now fast-forward to Thursday’s opening frame at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a “have” on the new schedule of designated events, and Kirk was back at it with seven birdies wedged between bookend bogeys for a 5-under 67, which left him two back of world No. 1 Jon Rahm at day's end. Just a stroke back of Kirk stood world No. 2 and defending champion Scottie Scheffler and fan-favorite Jordan Spieth.
For the PGA Tour storytellers, this represents the desired future of designated events filled with star players doing star-player things alongside an endearing everyman adding the perfect mix of intrigue and perspective.
This is the Tour’s fourth designated event – following stops at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational – and like the previous three, the plan to more frequently gather the game’s best players has worked flawlessly.
In Maui, Rahm outdueled Collin Morikawa. At raucous TPC Scottsdale, it was Scheffler repeating; and in Los Angeles, it was Rahm, again, with Max Homa coming up just short.
It’s still early in the process, but the Tour’s concept of build-it-and-they-will-come checks out. Both fans and players are feeling it.
“It was rare for us to have these occasions where everybody would kind of be here in the past. This year it's been definitely successful,” Scheffler said. “I think you look at the guys on the leaderboard each week kind of reflect what we're going for with the new schedule … That's the stuff that we're trying to gain.”
This year’s schedule is something of a beta test for the designated events, with Wednesday’s memo outlining a lineup in 2024 with better flow and more chances for the top players to play the role, at least according to the circuit’s blueprint.
Along with the four majors, three playoff events and Players Championship, there will be eight additional designated events starting in ’24 with limited fields (70 to 80 players) and no cut. Exactly what that schedule looks like remains to be seen, but the memo described a type of “distribution” of events to create an ebb and flow to the season.
The idea here is to schedule two or three non-designated events between designated stops, which will give players who aren’t qualified for the bigger tournaments with bigger purses a chance to play their way into stops like the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I do like that it looks like they are giving ample opportunity for people who are playing really well to get into those events and not be only top 50 in the world. That’s the way the [World Golf Championships] felt to me,” Kirk said. “I’ve spent a lot more years out here being the 50-to-70-on-the-FedEx-list kind of player, so I don’t know.”
Using next year’s qualification criteria, Kirk wouldn’t have been qualified for this week’s event at Arnie’s Place or most of the other designated events – not without his PGA National performance.
He didn’t finish last season inside the top 50 on the season-ending FedExCup points list, he didn’t rank inside the top 30 in the world ranking and he wasn’t among the top 10 players from this year’s FedExCup list. It all makes Kirk the answer to the most common question on Tour following Wednesday’s announcement – how do you play your way into the designated events?
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around and decide if I like it or don’t like it. When I first heard it, I don’t like the idea of taking away playing opportunities from fully exempt Tour players but it’s starting to make more sense to me,” Kirk admitted.
The anxiety is real among Tour players, and it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the 120 players in this week’s opposite-field event in Puerto Rico are probably less than enthused with the changes.
There’s also the very real sense that the Tour, which was driven to these dramatic changes by LIV Golf and a funding source (the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) that unraveled the economics of professional golf.
“Like the FedExCup, that wasn't right the first time, it wasn't right after 10 years, it wasn't,” Spieth said. “There were changes there that six, seven years in you didn't really notice what people were upset about when it started. I think you're looking at doing the same thing here, but trying to look 10 years in advance, make sure that we're getting closer to what everyone is going to be happy with there.”
Spieth also echoed what has become something of the circuit’s new mission statement, “The whole point is trying to get the best players in the world playing as often as possible on the PGA Tour in the same events,” he said.
The challenge for the Tour will be balancing how to hold that upper class together while still giving legitimate access to those in the middle. But if the last 96 hours are any indication, the beta test is off to a good start.