Tour grapples with how to bring game into 21st century

Tour grapples with how to bring game into 21st century

WILMINGTON, Del. – Study the template of the BMW Championship.

Limited field.

No cut.

Bloated purse.

That might soon become the norm on the PGA Tour, at least for the upper echelon.

Tiger Woods and 21 other bold-faced names gathered last week at a luxury hotel in downtown Wilmington to map out a path forward for a tour that has been under siege since the arrival of LIV Golf earlier this summer. According to multiple media outlets – including a detailed report Sunday night from No Laying Up – the players emerged from that invitation-only meeting with unanimous support for a proposal that would see the Tour stage as many as 15 elevated events with select fields and massive purses .

Sound familiar?

“I hate to say it,” Mackenzie Hughes said, “but it sounds like LIV 2.0.”

That the proposal so closely resembles the Tour’s upstart rival suggests that LIV has exploited a weakness in the marketplace: the top players in the world currently gather in fewer than a third of the Tour’s scheduled events. A streamlined slate of marquee tournaments would signal to fans that these are the events that truly matter, even if it remains to be seen whether that concentrated approach can create a compelling enough product to engage audiences while satiating money-motivated stars and warding off an existential threat to the business.

“It’s a direct response to what we’re competing against,” Hughes said, “but why would you go with the exact same premise? If it’s too similar, people are going to think that it’s crap.”

The future was essentially on display last week at the BMW, the penultimate event of the season.

Compared to most tour stops, the second playoff event felt cushy and comfortable. A 70-player field (only 68 competed) meant less noise, fewer distractions and lighter traffic on the range, in player dining and in the fitness trailer. The practice-round tee sheet wasn’t congested, leading to more constructive preparation. And once the tournament began, pace of play was noticeably quicker with twosomes spread out over six hours, the first tee time not until 9:10 am From a $15 million purse, the winner received $2.7 million; even the last-place finisher walked away with $30,900.

“There’s an aspect of it that’s very nice for the players,” Jon Rahm said.

“It’s like the old WGCs,” Justin Thomas said. “You’ve played really well to get into them. You’re not just handed them; you’ve earned it. You’re one of the top players in the world. So, the better you play, the more that you do, the better it gets for you.”

The setup also appeals to fans, particularly those in attendance. Without a 36-hole cut, the best players on Tour are guaranteed to stick around for the duration of the tournament; just a week earlier, at the playoff opener in Memphis, main attractions Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler were among those who exited early. One of the priorities moving forward, according to multiple players, is to ensure that the top talent is still playing when the most people are engaged, and weekend coverage, on average, draws about seven times more viewers than early rounds.

“A cut is still very important at the pinnacle of the game – it separates the field – but it depends what we’re trying to do with the Tour week-in and week-out,” McIlroy said. “As an entertainment product, to keep the talent there as long as possible at the venue, especially throughout the weekend, it’s a better thing for the tour.”

But the drawbacks of the reported proposal are obvious – and not just because it lacks innovation and could stunt rising stars.

From a strictly competitive standpoint, something will undoubtedly be lost if the 36-hole cut is eliminated in all, or most, of the elevated events. Many regular-season tournaments already feel monotonous and without juice; that’s only magnified if the fields are generally the same and the early rounds don’t feature any cut-line drama, with players simply jockeying for position. Hughes recalled his performance at the 2020 Honda Classic, where he had to “fight like hell” just to play the weekend after a late birdie in his second round. Coming off five straight missed cuts, he’d once again proved himself under pressure. On the weekend he rallied to finish second, and to him, at least, it was a heroic moment that might not have otherwise happened.

“It makes golf great, and you get uncomfortable in those positions,” he said. “There’s a chance those first two days you can go home. It makes you assertive from the get-go. There’s a standard you have to meet. If it’s four days, it takes some of the fire out of it.”

Rahm opened with a 73 at the BMW but didn’t panic because he had 54 holes to cut into his deficit; he wound up tied for eighth. McIlroy said he enjoys “having freedom those first two days and not playing as carefully.” Even if out of contention in a guaranteed four-rounder, Thomas tries to guard against merely playing out the string – he knows a swing feel, or a perfectly executed shot, could spur him on the following week. Viktor Hovland prefers the traditional halfway cut, but he remains keenly aware that the current model might be bad business.

“It’s a tricky thing to where you want the tournaments to be as pure as possible,” Hovland said, “but at the same time, this is sports, and there’s a lot of money involved. You don’t want to sacrifice, but you have to make compromises to find a place that works the best. You just don’t want to go too far in the commercialized aspect that it waters down the product.”

And it appears that overall product is about to evolve: An elevated series solely for the top players would reshape the landscape of a tour that has long been criticized for catering to the middle class; it’d represent what many consider a painful-but-necessary shift that could create even more resentment in these divisive times. Those on the A-tour would play against the strongest fields on the best courses for the largest purses (and, in lieu of contracts, for guaranteed pay). Those who failed to gain entry to the star series would be resigned to tournaments that offer similar prize money as now but would be bereft of star power and fan interest – events that could prove a tough sell.

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“How are you going to get anyone to watch the B tour, then?” said Hughes, who colors that gray area, having ranked 70th or better in the FedExCup in four of his six seasons on Tour. “It’s great for the top 60 guys or whatever, sure, and I’d love to play in those. But is that the best for the tour and its product? Probably not.”

It’s important to note that this proposal, though reportedly approved by top players, remains in the conceptual stage for now; commissioner Jay Monahan and tour leadership have yet to weigh in on its feasibility. Speaking to reporters last week in Wilmington, McIlroy cautioned that he didn’t want to delve into meeting specifics. On the overall concept, he was clear: “We need to get the top guys together more often than we do.” How they achieve that objective, however, is not yet fully formed.

If the BMW Championship becomes the model moving forward – elite 70-man field, no cut demanding, course – then Sunday’s final round was worth reheating a dozen or so times a year. Patrick Cantlay, the reigning Player of the Year, earned a narrow victory with a gutsy fairway-bunker shot on the 72nd hole. Surprise contender Scott Stallings, chasing the most significant title of his career, fell one shot shy. Scheffler, the Masters champion, was in the mix. So, too, were both stud Xander Schauffele, 28, and 42-year-old Adam Scott. It was a stout field and proper golf and captivating drama – a resounding showcase for what the Tour still offers.

The tournament format is important. History and tradition are, too. But the players are the product, and for the first time, the superstars seem keen to set their own parameters.

“I’ve said this to a lot of guys: We need to protect the integrity of the game, and respect the legends that have come before us, but we need to do a better job of bringing the game into the 21st century,” McIlroy said. “It’s that balancing act.”

All that’s at stake is the Tour’s future.