DUBLIN, Ohio – In four stints as a player director on the PGA Tour Policy Board Davis Love III has heard every proposal, scheme and suggestion known to man and Tim Finchem to improve the quality of fields on the circuit.
“One-in-four (which would require an independent contractor play every event at least once every four years) has been brought up every year,” Love said. “We can’t figure out a way to make one-in-four work.”
Administrators and players have also debated the merits of raising the Tour minimum from 15 events to 20 with little success. It is both the beauty and the bane of golf that the frat brothers call their own shots, without the often-clouded influence of a union or an omnipotent commissioner.
Since Tour time began the system has worked, but now, more than ever, that system has turned into a fiefdom with the have-nots left to fend as best they can. In 1997 Tiger Woods arrived, bringing with him untold exposure and the reality that he turns the Tour wheel, and two years later the World Golf Championships virtually gutted the 15-event minimum rule.
The Tour marquee will play the majors, the four WGCs and a handful of “must see” events, leaving little room for the St. Jude Classics and Wyndham Championships of the world.
As best Love could figure, there was no way to mandate a schedule without upending the independence of the contractors. That was until Tuesday night during a meeting of the Player Advisory Council at Muirfield Village.
The plan is simple, statistically feasible and historically tried and tested. Each year the Tour would designate three to five events and a top player, presumably someone in the top 50 in the World or FedEx Cup ranking, would be required to play at least one.
“It’s an attempt to improve fields at as many events as possible,” said Clair Peterson, the John Deere Classic tournament director who spoke at the PAC meeting. “There have been a lot of theories and solutions kicked around for a while and this is one that was in place some years ago and there were good productive comments.”
Whether the “designated tournament” concept would work remains to be seen, but there is historical precedent.
In 1977, just three days after Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson battled in their Open Championship epic “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry the two titans were on the first tee to play the Pleasant Valley Classic in Massachusetts, not an easy feat during the days before direct flights and automatic upgrades.
For the record, Nicklaus finished second, Watson tied for 11th and the folks at Pleasant Valley took the ultimate prize, more attention and exposure than Donald Trump could ever buy. The two made the trip from Scotland because of a similar “designated tournament” rule that was on the Tour books from 1974 to 2000.
“I’m sure they were happy this program was in place at the time because they probably wouldn’t have that,” Peterson said.
According to the Tour the last time the regulation, which was slightly different than the current proposal because it mandated where certain players had to play, was used was in 1985 and it was dropped from the regulations in 2000.
Imagine the buzz on the first tee at the 2005 Honda Classic if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson showed up just days after the duo’s famous duel at Doral. Instead, the two didn’t play in the same tournament again until The Players Championship some three weeks later, by then the Blue Monster buzz had subsided.
Those who think the “designated tournament” concept doesn’t have legs, or a clear mandate, aren’t paying attention.
Too many good tournaments are on the ropes, from Harbour Town to Memphis, and for the first time in a long time players are willing to talk, not because of a union or Tour arm twisting but because of the need.
There is a concern that under the proposed rule players who play 23 events each year will simply remove a normal stop from their schedules to make room for a “designated tournament,” a zero-sum estimation that ignores the impact of having Woods or Phil Mickelson or Steve Stricker in a tournament that has never enjoyed a fully loaded marquee.
“If your main objective is the health of the Tour in general, all the events including the John Deeres and Renos, it’s not a big deal for me to add one event to my schedule,” said Kevin Streelman, a member of the 16-player PAC who added the reaction to the proposal was “mixed.” “If Tiger and Phil add an event they might have to take one away, but it still helps the overall product.”
There is also the notion that an event’s presence on the “designated tournament” list would somehow be viewed as a negative.
“Not for the patrons,” Peterson counters. “Fans are excited to see players that they recognize. Whatever negative there might be is outweighed by the positive effect a top player in your field could have.”
The idea that contraction, not mandated starts, is the answer, that the current schedule dilutes the product and the only answer is a Draconian reality that weeds out the weak also ignores every rule of business. The NFL is forever expanding, Major League Baseball has no problem with a 162-game schedule or the addition of the League Championship Series.
How tournaments would be picked for designation is also part of the minutia, but, as Love points out, it’s not just tournaments with historically weak fields that need an occasional boost. Harbour Town, a Tour staple since 1969, draws a strong enough field but is facing a grim future after Verizon pulled the plug as the title sponsor this year.
Perhaps the most compelling element of Tuesday’s meeting was that players are willing to talk about a problem that’s not going away on its own.
“There’s an understanding by big players that these are difficult times we are living in,” said Steve Timms, the Shell Houston Open tournament director. “Guys recognize that maybe we need to think differently about the product.”
Just ask Love, the proposal changed his mind.