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First published in Ponte Vedra Recorder
The Players Supplement
Major Changes to PGA Tour: How Pros Keep PGA Tour Cards in The Future
by Gary Van Sickle
AKRON, Ohio—There hasn’t been a senior major for what—all of two weeks ? That means it must be time for another major championship.
Here we are at the Kaulig Companies Championship at storied Firestone Country Club. If that tourney title doesn’t ring your taco bell, that’s because it is the artist formerly known the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship.
Some things to know on the eve of the year’s fourth senior major:
Eight is enough: The schedule for PGA Tour Champions is such that the entire senior major championship season happens during an eight-event, ten-week span. That’s right, five out of eight events are biggies. The finale is the Senior Open Championship at Wales’ Royal Porthcawl in two weeks. (Does even Wal-Mart work its gray-haired employees this hard?)
The Big Skip: Wisconsin’s Steve Stricker, who won the first two senior majors of 2023, is taking a pass on the Senior Open in Wales. He was asked Wednesday if he would have given some thought to playing played the Open in Wales had he won the Senior U.S. Open in Wisconsin two weeks ago and a never-before-done Senior Slam was still a possibility. “I probably would have thought about it a little bit, yeah,” Stricker said. “But I’m going fishing in Canada so that would have been hard to pass up, too.” (Spoken like a true Wisconsin native.)
The gray Energizer Bunny: The two remarkable things about Bernhard Langer is that he scored his 46th senior victory two weeks ago at the U.S. Senior Open, breaking Hale Irwin’s mark of 45, and that Langer turns 66 next month. Maybe only Sam Snead ever played better for longer. Langer, on his remarkable staying power: “Father Time is always winning at some point. I’m just trying to slow down the process of aging and falling apart.” (And by the way, where are those bionic body parts Col. Steve Austin got almost 50 years ago in “The Six Million Dollar Man”? The clock is ticking.)
Chasing Tiger: With two more senior major titles in 2023, Stricker has a total of six senior major titles. I told him that means he has closed to within nine majors of Tiger Woods, who won 15 on the regular tour, and asked if he’s thought about that. Stricker, laughing: “Yeah, no. I don’t think about that at all What, has he won eight times here (at Firestone)? That’s a hell of a career.” (Woods also won eight times at Bay Hill and Torrey Pines. Apparently, he was pretty good.)
The king of beers: The Strick9 beer made by a custom brewery based in Stevens Point, Wis., made in conjunction with Stricker and flavored to suit his taste, sold out during the U.S. Senior Open week. Stricker said the brewery, District 1, is planning to make another batch. “It tastes good, I liked it,” he said. “My dad, who’s 85, doesn’t hardly drink anymore. He had two and they put him to sleep at about 7 that night so he loved it.” (The next batch should be renamed Strick9 P.M.)
The Sawgrass Factor: Despite the name change, the winner of the Kaulig Companies Championship still gets a spot in the field at next spring’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Jerry Kelly made it into the tournament via that route earlier this year and set a record for being the oldest player (56) to make a Players cut. Kelly has won twice at Firestone and is looking for a three-peat. “I love playing against the young kids,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to make a habit of it. I’m very happy where I am.” (But Ponte Vedra Beach is lovely in March, some say it’s a lot like April in Paris.)
The inner foursome: A different look inside the mind of a pro golfer was provided by former Open champion Stewart Cink, who’s now teeing it up on the senior circuit. “In one case I'm a golfer, in another case I'm a nervous golfer, then I'm a scared golfer, then I'm an excited golfer,” Cink said. “I've got a lot of different golfers in here, I'm multiple personalities. I've got to learn all those golfers and learn how to feel and trust my instincts and know that I'm not going to be the same not just every day, but every five minutes I'm like a different person. I have to adapt and be ready to change on the fly.” (That’s a lot of Cinks in the kitchen.)
The distance difference: On the regular PGA Tour, Kelly was a three-time winner, On PGA Tour Champions, he has 11 victories including two majors at Firestone. “I’ve always been a shorter hitter,” Kelly said. “When you’ve got 124 to 156 guys hitting it by you on the regular tour, their hot weeks are going to cancel out my hot weeks and there’s more of them that can do that in any given week. “Out here, I can win when I do that.” (Kelly ranks 51st in driving distance at 270.9 yards, about 3 yards longer than Langer but 15 yards shorter than fellow Madison resident Stricker.)
Jerry’s kids: More from Kelly, whose prime career time is coinciding with Langer’s record winning run and Stricker’s impressive and semi-dominant last few seasons: “It’s Tiger all over again.” (Wasn’t senior golf supposed to be easier?)Type your paragraph here.
PGA Tour Designated Tournaments:
What They Are and How They Happened
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Another Major Test for Seniors Special from Firestone and the Kaulig
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Gary Van Sickle's The Secret Masters
A lot of things you thought you knew about the PGA Tour just changed. Well, not just this second, but over the last few weeks with more in the upcoming months. It’s all in an effort to secure the place of the PGA Tour as the most elite, competitive golf organization on the planet. To understand this new system, you’ll need to know these numbers: 125, 70, 50, 30, 20 and 15.
First, the top 125 PGA Tour players in FedEx points at the end of this season will still be exempt for the next season. Exempt means they are guaranteed a PGA Tour card. But the way it’s determined will change slightly starting with this year’s FedEx Playoffs.
Here’s the big change: The top 125 won’t get to enter the Playoffs. Just the top 70. That is about half of the number that previously played. Or oops! If your favorite pro ends up at #71 or 72. He doesn’t get to participate in the Playoffs, but he still has a good chance to retain his card for the next season, during which he can maybe get back to that top 70 position. The top 50 get something better: entry into the designated events.
In the FedEx Playoffs, there are some changes.
The first playoff event will be the FedEx St. Jude, and that’s the one where only the top 70 will be eligible. That is just under half of the number that previously played, which was 125. Anyone who makes that top 70 is guaranteed a PGA Tour card for the next year, meaning they can play in any event, including invitationals and events with the biggest purses.
Then, the next two Playoff events are cut to top 50 for BMW and top 30 for Tour Championship. The BWM was previously 70 players. So that’s 20 more who will be going home early, but they are still in good shape for the next season.
If your favorite makes the top 30 and the Tour Championship, he’s good for the next two years, even if he did not have an exemption for a victory. That’s a big change. Two-year exemptions have not been given for anything but victories in the past. However, in recent years, we have had several rookies, some non-winners and the occasional veteran get to the top 30 in a season. This modification encourages stars to stay with the PGA Tour.
The other thing all these changes do is to amp up the competition a lot. Golfers have to perform to stay on the PGA Tour. No lollygagging. No taking a while to tweak a swing even if they have five-year PGA Tour exemptions for winning majors or The Players.
Now, here’s the get out of jail free card.
After the Tour Championship, those who did not make the top 70 will be able to add to their point total in the fall tournaments to upgrade their status. Nobody has announced how that will work as yet, so there are questions, particularly for those who are in the 50 – 70 point list. Could they get bumped out of their spot? Probably not, but there are unknowns at this juncture.
Regardless, the fall events will allow those placed 71 and above to improve their point position for the following season by playing in the fall events. We don’t know if those at 70 and better on the list will be able to add to theirs, but no one has said they can’t. It is sure that guys who are in the 126-150 slots will do their darnedest to unseat players in the 70-125 group. If you like full contact golf, this is as close as it gets. Every point will matter when it comes to having a chance to play the following season.
This is not altogether different from the days before FedEx points when it was top 125 in money or before the all-exempt tour, when it was top 60 were guaranteed a place to play, period. In those years, players lower in status would play in the fall to add to their money list total and move up to get a better shot at entering tournaments in the next season. Same idea here.
End of season tournaments may allow some who are in the 126-175 or so to move into the top 125 and secure a card and a better chance at entering tournaments. Right now, the lower priority a guy has, the harder it is for him to enter an event. We don’t know what will happen with jostling in this category, but some are going to go away unhappy with their performance at the end of the season.
Advancing in points during the fall is made harder by the fact that the Zozo and CJ Cup are limited field events that invite a specific number of players. In addition, two of them have many exemptions for golfers on the Japan Tour (Zozo) and the Korean Tour in (CJ Cup).
When the dust settles, what happens is the top 70 get a guaranteed slot in every PGA Tour event, including invitationals. They are set. Once a player is in the top 70, he’s good for the next year. If he doesn’t stay there, he has problems.
Then, starting next January, the future seasons will begin with the calendar year. There is no more wrap-around season. No more sort of starting in September and then going to the following September. (Thank goodness!)
In addition to the top 70 becoming the new benchmark, there is another change in the pecking order, too.
Lifetime status comes sooner if you are a prolific winner. In the past, a player had to have 20 victories and play for 15 seasons on the PGA Tour to get Lifetime status. Lifetime means he can enter any regular, non-invitational PGA Tour tournament, even if he is lower than the top 70. Davis Love III, for example, is in this category, although it’s hard to believe any tournament would ever say no to him.
Now, if a player wins 20 times, he doesn’t have to wait for the 15 years. Let’s call this the Rory McIlroy rule, but it could just as easily be the Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus or the Arnold Palmer rule.
McIlroy joined the PGA Tour in 2010 although he’d been a pro in Europe for a few seasons before that. He reached that magic number 20 in the fall of 2021 with a victory at the CJ Cup. He’s gathered up three more since then. But the 15-year criteria wouldn’t give him lifetime status until 2025. Now, he has it. Deservedly so.
To compare to legends in the game, Woods had 20 PGA Tour victories by the middle of 2000 and he started his career in the fall of 1996. So that’s 20 victories in less than five years. Jack Nicklaus won 20 times in his first six years on the PGA Tour. Arnold Palmer won 20 between August of 1955 and June of 1960.
There are 14 more golfers who have 20 or more PGA Tour victories who are still alive. Can you name them? Two of them have flown the coop. They’re on another tour.
(Answer: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Dustin Johnson, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Davis Love III, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin and Greg Norman.)
Kathy Bissell has more than 35 years experience as a golf writer and television producer.
First published in Ponte Vedra Recorder
The Players Supplement
Starting this season, the PGA Tour has announced that there will be what they are calling Designated Tournaments. They called them something else for a few months, but finally settled on the “Designated” moniker as a way to describe them.
The Designated events are special because they have more money in the tournament purses than other tournaments. And we’re not talking a few pennies here. It’s more than a doubling of most purses. We’re talking giant bags of cash. Millions. That gets everybody’s attention.
In all honesty, these high paying opportunities were created to keep the great players on the PGA Tour playing on the PGA Tour. It was a way to stave off the threat from LIV Golf, which has poached several players from the PGA Tour by offering them big bags of Saudi money.
In an effort to figure out how to handle what we could call the LIV problem, 20 or so top players met on their own last summer and then told Commissioner Jay Monahan what they had decided. First of all, they agreed to play in high purse events, as many as 19 or 20 of them as it turned out. That was pretty surprising. If you are in any group, you know how hard it is to get everybody to agree to the same thing, much less a bunch of gazillionaires who are used to getting their way a lot of the time.
This was only the second player meeting of its kind in the history of the PGA Tour, according to the commissioner. Strangely, both were as a result of Greg Norman trying to start a competing tour. Enough about Norman. (And believe me, the Tour has had enough of him at this point.)
After the player meeting, the PGA Tour bean counters went to work and assured the membership that because of the new TV contracts, it would be possible to pay out the higher purses.
But it might not have been. The pandemic, according to Monahan, actually created some scenarios where the Tour could have collapsed from lack of funds. They did some belt-tightening to be able to continue. Fortunately, the PGA Tour survived, and golf became the first sport to return to live competition after the pandemic started.
The other upshot of the player meeting was that a few tournaments became “Designated” in the years ahead, while others will rotate in and out of this new elite status. But we don’t really know yet how it will work in future years. We only know which tournaments are affected this season.
Tournaments that are in this core category this season are Sentry Tournament of Champions, The Genesis Invitational (Tiger Woods’ event), Arnold Palmer Invitational (Arnold Palmer’s family is still involved), The Players, WGC-Dell Match Play, the Memorial Tournament (Jack Nicklaus’ event), FedEx St Jude Championship, BMW Championship and TOUR Championship.
(WGC-Dell Match Play is in its last year.)
The prize money for Sentry became $15 million. For The Players, it became $25 million. For the Tour Championship, it became some number so high we can’t count. And all the rest of the tournaments in this category have $20 million purses to pay pros.
In addition to each of these events, the Tour promised to add another four upgraded tournaments which would also have $20 million purses. These would rotate among the rest of the schedule. For 2023, the upgraded or wildcard events are WM Phoenix Open, RBC Heritage, Wells Fargo Championship and Travelers Championship. While we expect four different ones to be selected for 2024, that announcement has not been made.
In case you wondered, for all non-designated PGA Tour tournaments to have a chance to be in the $20 million purse category, it would take five years if no tournament repeats and if it’s four new ones each season.
As a result of these changes, one long-time sponsor has reportedly gone away mad because they were sandwiched between two upgraded events. But maybe they were going away anyway. These things happen in golf and life. It has since been announced that future tournaments will not have this happen. It is likely to be two designated tournaments then three non-designated events and so on through the season. No one has any idea what the fall schedule will be for this year or next year.
We are not privy to all the PGA Tour’s business, but the history of the Tour is that sponsors and tournaments come and go. Right now, there are more tournaments wanting to be in the regular season than there are weeks in the regular season, January to August. That is a good situation for the PGA Tour.
Meanwhile, the player-created, designated-event situation, basically a 20 or so players for 20 events deal, is a pact that the players made with their organization to help keep it strong in the future. Even that has some issues.
A few golfers who have dual tour memberships asked for the “Mother May I Opt Out of One,” which Commissioner Monahan can approve at his discretion. And he’s likely to approve.
What happens if a player opts out of two events? He’s likely to lose out on his PIP (Player Impact Program) money, which is a bonus pool of $50 million that gets shared between the top 20 players. Not a bad bonus for mostly doing what you were going to do anyway.
If it were me, I’d find out the commish’s favorite brand of golf balls and his preferred cookies and see that they are both delivered often. Never hurts to be nice to the commish, just to stay on his good side when looking for a favorable decision.
So, which is it, Jay? Peanut butter? Oatmeal raisin? White chocolate chip and macadamia nuts? Regular chocolate chip?