Winter comes early on the PGA Tour. Late August, usually. There’s an unseasonable interlude every couple of years thanks to a Ryder Cup, or a brief glimpse of sunshine from an elite field, like at this week’s CJ Cup, but this is a mostly desolate stretch for those among us who neither know nor care who is pitching for the Patriots against Auburn.
Which isn’t to say there’s no product. The CJ Cup is the fifth of nine PGA Tour events in the post-playoffs fall, all of which have provided fans worthy winners and ample entertainment while benefitting communities, sponsors and players alike. But that owes more to the happenstance of competition than because fall golf is considered appointment viewing.
Throughout the nine years in which the Tour has used a wraparound schedule, it has maintained a painfully democratic insistence that every tournament has equal stature, an understandable position to adopt when corporations are signing checks for the privilege. Fans know it’s not true though. Fall events have come to be defined by who chooses to work, or more often, not work. With 15 of the world’s top 20 golfers in action, this week’s CJ Cup is an outlier. Next week’s Butterfield Bermuda Championship feels like a Head Start program for journeymen and rookies by comparison.
What limited star power there is at Port Royal comes in the form of 56-year-old John Daly, who has made two cuts in the past seven years and none in more than four. On the flip side, the field also includes Robert Garrigus, a man deemed too mediocre even for LIV’s depthless first wave of recruits. (Garrigus recently denounced Billy Horschel as a “douchebag,” but since it wasn’t Horschel who volunteered as a stooge for the Saudis only to be snubbed from a line-up oversubscribed with no-names, the sole inaccuracy here is the direction in which the charge of douchebaggery is being leveled.)
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Fall golf on the PGA Tour suffers from a macro perception grounded in micro reality—that it lacks star power and meaning. Rory McIlroy reinforced that when asked a few days ago what fall should look like. “Football,” he replied. If McIlroy doesn’t care, why should you? Of course, his was the privileged response of someone who doesn’t need to be out making a living among the falling leaves, but it illustrated the competing needs within the PGA Tour—to be a platform for accomplished superstars, and to provide earning opportunities for the rest of its membership. Their bills don’t stop coming in because Rory is on vacation.
Whatever slender prospects fall tournaments had of drawing stars to compete, they’ll have none at all with the coming reconfiguration of the calendar, which commits the Tour’s upper crust to 20 starts between the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January and the Tour Championship in August. Yet a by-product of that change may finally bestow a semblance of identity on this long-maligned portion of the schedule.
Beginning this season, just 70 players will qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs and secure cards for the new calendar-year season of 2024, down from 125. The rest will join a shootout for ’24 status in the fall events, a Hunger Games-style scrap with a cast that includes up-and-coming talent and recognizable names searching for redemption. Under this new dispensation, the old dead zone from East Lake to New Years has life, and something meaningful at stake: future employment, earned via tournaments and the resurrected Q-School. The fall can finally be welcomed for what it offers rather than dismissed for what it lacks.
That’s not to suggest the game’s best players will sit home for four months while others wrestle for relevancy. Since the PGA Tour backburnered plans for a fourth-quarter series of lucrative events overseas, the DP World Tour can expect more stars to join the race to its year-end bonus pool party in Dubai. Jon Rahm has made clear his desire to keep supporting fall events in Spain and it has been reported that the Irish Open will move to dates after the FedEx Cup playoffs, enabling McIlroy and Shane Lowry to compete at home. Golf fans will probably see more of elite players in the autumn, albeit in different time zones.
“I would love us to come back in January and people will have missed watching competitive golf. I don’t think that happens right now because there’s 47 events a year,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “You’ve got to let people miss it a little bit… I’m not saying we’re not going to play any golf in the fall, but the fall is maybe more of an international flavor.”
That’s a fair trade. The PGA Tour needs to focus on bundling superstars who draw transient sports fans to a product that has been too diluted for too long. Concentrating the best into an eight-month span accomplishes that. And when our traditional winter settles in by late August, when the elite have moved on to plow foreign fields, hardy fans at home will still have something to sustain us. For a change, that something won’t be nothing.