By Tim Liotta
Gap Bigger than Ever between PGA Tour's Stars, Everybody Else
There might not be a group of athletes on the planet right now who are adjusting more to what a difference a year makes than PGA Tour professionals.
The Tour's decision to revert back to a calendar year from January to August in 2024, with the previous Fall season serving as a final chance to determine status for the coming year, is a fundamental change from the past 10 years when the season began in September and was essentially 52 weeks long.
Shortening the season to 35 events leading up to the FedEx Cup playoffs in August is one thing, but to combine that with the stratification of tournaments into Signature and non-Signature events only further intensifies things for the 200+ professionals vying for their place in the Tour's pecking order.
Headlines have been centered on the PGA Tour's increases in purses, but, for the players, the biggest change has to do with the opportunity to move up the ladder of professional golf success.
Responding to a question that it's nice to play for increased purses, Tour veteran Stewart Cink responded, "It is. It's relative. It's what you're playing for in (FedEx Cup) points, too, and you're keeping your job security, ranking."
The Tour has in place for 2024 ways for a player to gain entry into it's biggest tournaments based the FedEx Cup points standings, and the dividing line comes at No. 50, with the Tour's top 50 automatically qualifying for the Tour's eight Signature events, which offer $20+ million dollar purses and increased FedEx Cup points.
"If I was in the top 50 I would really like it, but I'm not, so I don't like it," Cink said at last week's Sony Open in Hawaii. "Unfortunately I do think it's probably the right thing to do for golf fans. If all the players play in those and we get great fields playing for a lot of money then it's great.
"It's just I don't think it serves everybody, and PGA TOUR kind of has been about doing the best for everybody, for all the pros and members.
So I'm a little mixed on that."
The Tour set up its 2024 schedule as its latest response to LIV Golf luring star players with eight, nine-figure sums of cash and huge tournament purses. Keeping the Tour's "stars" from jumping ship with increased purses, no-cut tournaments and ease in scheduling topped the list of incentives.
"To me, it's a little bit out of balance, a little bit out of balance," Cink said. "I understand where it all came from. We had to do something because we had a competing venture out there trying to swallow our players up. So we had to give our players a reason to stay, so I get it."
The biggest is point of contention tipping the scale in favor of the Tour's star players are the five limited-field Signature events without a 36-hole cut. Those tournaments do offer to small avenues for outsiders to enter _ small when you understand that more than 150+ other PGA Tour players are competing for those spots in some capacity. Each tournament will offer spots to the 10 highest-ranked players on the FedEx Cup Standings through the previous tournament not already qualified - as well as the Swing 5 - the five players amassing the most FedEx Cup points in the tournaments between Signature events.
"You've got to play so well to finish in those spots," said Cink. "So to honor those finishes with a chance to move up into these Signature Events, I think it's good.
"I just, one thing that personally I am not for is I played in the first year of the elevated tournaments (in 2023) when they were called designated, so long ago, you know. They were mostly full-field tournaments with cuts and all the top players played. I thought they were just absolutely brilliant. It's hard to convince me and a lot of the players that aren't in those fields why being a small field matters."
Those five limited-field events figure to give those 80 or so players the opportunity to play for thousands of FedEx Cup points not available to lower-ranked players.
"Yeah, and you can imagine which way it fell," Cink said. "Fell about to the 81st player. Everybody above that wanted to have small fields. I don't know why. I'm just not convinced why an 80-man field is more elite than 156-man field. I don't get it.
"I played in all those when they were full fields. Not that Phoenix is 156 players, but as full as they can get it for the daylight and the frost and all that. 132 I believe. It had a cut. All the players. I thought those were such great tournaments that year."
It comes down to math. There are 23 other PGA Tour events - non-Signature and opposite field events - offering 10,950 possible points. Total. The five limited-field Signature events offer 3,500 points to the Tour's top players.
The math gets even worse for the player unable to get into the 2024 major championships, but that has always been part of the PGA Tour's landscape. The four majors each offer a possible 750 FedEx Cup points in 2024, meaning a player ranked 70th or so on the PGA Tour who is not qualified for any of the majors misses out on competing for that 6,500 points that the four majors and five limited-field Signature events combine to offer.
The other benefit for the Tour's top players is the schedule switch to an eight-month, January-to-August schedule where the Fall season focuses on that year's final points standing. In previous years, the Fall schedule provided not-so-famous players nine or 10 events to amass FedEx points while star players played only sporadically.
For the top players, they have finally enjoyed a break when they weren't falling behind.
"Oh, yeah, I much rather prefer this," said two-time major champion Collin Morikawa at the Tour's first 2024 event two weeks ago. "It felt like this off-season, even though you could go play, it felt like you weren't falling behind. There's something to that of just where everyone's starting and zero here (at the Sentry in Hawaii) and mentally can you kind of take your self out. I think in the off-season the past few years for me I've played maybe two to three times, but even when you're not playing your mind's feeling like, Okay, like I want to get back out there. This year I was able to take a few weeks and just be, like, I'm checking out. That's been nice."
When asked about the switch, Patrick Cantlay pointed out how, in year's past, the Tour's best players had to play catch-up.
"I think I finished fourth here (at the first event of the calendar year) one year and I was 55th in the FedExCup, a few years ago," he said. "So, I think it will be good. Then it will also be good that all the most important golf is from now until August.
Scheduling for players has become a Signature, non-Signature dance.
"It's a good feeling when you know you're in all the signature events," said Ben An, whose fourth-place and T2 has him No. 2 in the FedEx Cup standings. "It's so much easier to schedule your tournaments out. Compared to last year, I wouldn't get in some of the events last year, but this year, knowing that you got in a lot of events, it's a lot easier to schedule yourself. I'm very excited. I feel like I have room to get better than last year, and I feel I've been playing better than last year over the last winter, so we'll see. I'm very excited.
Former U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson is in a different position.
"Very up in the air. The only big tournament I'm definitely in is The Players," Simpson said last week. "I've got one more year. AT&T and was kind enough to give me a spot, so I get that elevated. That's my next one. It'll be totally up in the air.
"Florida swing could be - Bay Hill if I got in. If I didn't, I would play Valspar. Kind of a lot of that. I'm playing San Antonio for the first time. I've never played Valero, but playing that for the first time.
Said Camilo Villegas: "I'm going to play Palm Springs, and then it all depends if I get in Pebble or not, so we'll see. I finished 74th, so I need four guys not to play Pebble to get in. Never know."
Tour veteran Alex Noren prefers not to look too far down the road, saying: "It feels maybe more like distinctive, the season, but then also like not trying to focus too much on everything. When I focus on where to get in, am I in this one, am I in that, it's like too much. Just trying to enjoy it and sort of enjoy the tournaments more than putting too much pressure on me."