PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – All the focus of the changes coming to the PGA Tour has been on the reaction of players to the designated event model to be implemented beginning in 2024. But as one PGA Tour tournament director was quick to point out the real story is this — how do the people who are being asked to foot the bill feel about it?
After all, there are no big-money purses without sponsors. And the elephant in the room is how non-elevated events feel about paying the same amount of money for potentially inferior fields.
So, Golfweek asked a bunch and while initially tournament directors and sponsors of non-designated events were grumbling that they would be shut out of luring top players without finding creative ways to incentivize them to do so, that sentiment has shifted as the PGA Tour has begun communicating its messaging.
As he was headed to Tampa to prep for next week’s Valspar Championship, which his company operates, Hollis Cavner stopped to say that he had sat down with Tour officials, who walked him through the changes to the Tour schedule, and said, “they made me a believer.”
“I went in with an open mind and came out feeling real good. This is good for us,” he said. “Once you see how it is going to work, it’s clear that it’s going to be very good for elevated events and darn good for non-designated events. I think other sponsors will see it, too.”
Cavner’s company, Pro Links Sports, also operates the 3M Open and Kady Stoll, 3M’s vice president of global partnerships, was equally encouraged after meeting with Tour brass on Wednesday at the Players.
“The focus this week has been on the designated events, but with the top 70 cut off instead of top 125 qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs where we are in the schedule will lend itself to a stronger field,” she explained. “Then since only the top 50 through the Tour Championship will qualify for those eight designated events the 3M Open fields should be deeper top to bottom and we do think some of the top stars will complement their schedule above and beyond those events.”
She noted that the Tour’s presentation changed her thinking and made her comfortable that the Tour and the 3M Open would be in “a good place.”
“I was very concerned when I heard the announcement but once we sat down and went through the Tour schedule and how they are spreading out the designated events and having two to three full-field events between those designated it really helped,” she said. “Especially when we get to the end of summer with the 3M being in the end of July, I think we’re in a very good spot.”
The Tour hasn’t announced which seven regular-season tournaments —in addition to the Sentry Tournament of Champions — will be awarded status as designated events with select fields of 70-80 players with no cuts beginning next season, but it’s a safe bet that the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament and Tiger Woods’s Genesis Invitational will be among them. Golfweek previously reported that the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is expected to be named a designated event.
Larson Segerdahl, who runs the Valero Texas Open, is among the tournament directors still digesting what the changes are going to mean for his tournament and the Tour as a whole.
“We don’t know yet whether it’s going to be something that will impact us positively or negatively,” he said. “We’re eager to hear more.”
The Valero Texas Open will be played in three weeks’ time, one week before the Masters, and Segerdahl noted that there are provisions in its agreement that state that they will be able to confirm the tournament’s date for 2024 one year out.
“We haven’t been presented any details of what it means to be a designated event in terms of the investment level and all of that,” he said. “We’re very interested in what that can look like.”
There always has been what Joel Dahmen, who finished No. 92 in the FedEx Cup standings last year, termed PGA Tour A and PGA Tour B, where certain events such as the Memorial have been regular stops for the top players. It’s simply being spelled out in black and white now. The elite players potentially will have 16 starts mapped out when factoring in the Players, three FedEx Cup playoff events and the four majors.
But is that really a significant change?
Nathan Grube, tournament director at the Travelers Championship, which is a designated event this year, recalled talking to a top-5 player a decade ago who told him he had one week that was flexible in his schedule.
“All of you non-major, non-playoff, non-Jack, Arnie events are all competing for that one open spot I have in my schedule,” Grube recalled the top-5 player saying to him. “It was like a punch to the stomach. He walked me through it and I was like, ‘You’re right, you’ve got one week.’
“I contrast that to now that same level player has six open weeks where he can decide where to play. Going back, we had four WGCs, the Players. I was crushed. I realized I had no shot. I thought, ‘That’s what I’m up against?’ When I hear the top guys now say they have six more events they are going to spread out on their schedule, I’m very optimistic about how the guys are going to support the non-elevated events. Oh, there’s a chance. Everyone saw the challenges of 2023, but they said this year would be a bridge to something else.”
Former Wells Fargo tournament director Kym Hougham once equated the Tour schedule to choosing college classes.
“You have your requirements and your electives. For years, there used to be four requirements – the majors – and the rest of the events were electives. You had four that were a given and then had 14 others to choose from,” he said.
Now the requirements have swelled to 16, all in the name of bringing the best players together on a more regular basis. On Tuesday, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan revealed a telling stat in support of his changes: “Consider the last five years on the PGA Tour. What percentage of the top 10, top 20, top 30 players in the world compete on average against one another at a major championship? The answer: More than 95 percent. What about those same top players competing together at the remaining PGA Tour events? Answer: Less than 40 percent. Let me repeat that. Less than 40 percent,” Monahan said.
The electives – the non-designated events — are vying for a handful of spots. Rahm, the World No. 1, played 19 tournaments last season. McIlroy made just 16 starts in winning the FedEx Cup last season. (When asked, he said 24 worldwide starts including playing on the DP World Tour, is what he expects to play.)
As Paul McGinley put it on Golf Channel, “19 events is not enough,” and called for the top pros to do better. But as one tournament director pointed out, there are no guarantees. “Guys in the top 50 are going to have to play their butt off just to stay in the top 50. There’s no coasting. That probably means 22-24 events.”
He also noted that many of the player endorsement deals require playing in 20-25 events. If they play less and fail to meet the minimum standard, they have to give back a portion of their money. “And these guys don’t like writing checks, they only like cashing them,” a tournament director said.
What could the Tour have done differently?
“The guys in the designated events should’ve been forced to play other events,” the tournament director said, noting that the mandatory participation regulations with designated events are going away after this season. The limited field, no cut, inflated money/FedEx Cup points and bigger world ranking points are expected to be enough of an attraction to draw the top players, but removing the requirement to play at least three non-designated events is not sitting well with some sponsors.
“If you’re going to go to 16 events and create a second tour, they should’ve been required to play at least 3-5 (non-designated events),” the tournament director said. “That would put them at 21 events for the year. If they play all 16, what would it hurt them to play another five events? A lot of these top guys are playing 17, 18, that’s it. Give the other events a chance that the top 10, top 20 are going to play.”
McIlroy, who has been heavily involved in the Tour’s restructured schedule as a player director on the Tour board, said, “sixteen events from January to August isn’t a ton, right? You’re going to play more than that to feel sharp and ready to go at the biggest events.”
The question is will it be enough to keep sponsors of the non-designated events happy?