More times than not your scribe uses this space to address some wrong that the PGA Tour should right or simply lament a general lack of interest from the circuit on whatever hot topic is stirring the social media pot at the moment.
But this week isn’t going to be like that. This edition, in the name of fair play and demonstrated success, is an ode to finding a solution that, for decades, seemed hopelessly out of reach.
As far back as anyone can remember, the Tour has wrestled with the reality that its schedule was a collection of have and have-nots; and there was little reason for the game’s top players to alter that reality.
Players being the ultimate independent contractors resisted even the slightest suggestion to change their schedule, and the tournaments that needed the boost from an occasional cameo by a star were reluctant to allow themselves to be officially labeled “B” tier events.
The solution was introduced for the 2016-17 season and dubbed the strength-of-field regulation. Like many things produced out of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the new requirement initially seemed overly-complicated; but after a full season to digest, the verdict is in – the new rule works.
“I don’t have an issue with the rule. I feel like it’s already paid some tournaments back, look at Travelers [Championship] this year,” Paul Casey said. “It was great. It probably won’t be Travelers next year, it will be someone else who wins.”
Actually, there were two metaphorical winners last season.
This year’s Travelers Championship, which is played the week after the U.S. Open and has historically struggled to draw a marquee field despite one of the circuit’s more popular courses and arguably the Tour’s most dedicated sponsor, featured eight of the top 30 in the world rankings - including Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Overall, the Travelers strength of field in June was 348, it’s highest mark in over a decade.
“What I found with Rory and Jordan when I first talked to them [the new rule] was part of the conversation, I don’t think it was the only thing,” Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube said. “As a tournament, any time you can get a player thinking about your event that’s all you want. That’s all you can ask for.”
Last season’s Safeway Open also received a much-needed boost from the new rule, with a collection of players who probably wouldn’t have penciled the season opener down on their schedules, including Casey.
Essentially, the new rule has allowed the Tour to venture into a touchy area without drawing the ire of players or tournament directors.
The rule requires a player to add an event to their schedules that they haven’t played in four years – a list that doesn’t include the majors, Players Championship, World Golf Championships or FedExCup Playoffs – if they didn’t play at least 25 events the previous season. Players can sidestep the new requirement if they play 25 events in the current season, but even that small print serves the larger narrative of getting players to play more.
“Whether it’s Hartford or other events early in the season that hadn’t had certain players play before it just brings really good energy,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “It’s challenging when you make a change like that but as a collective whole we’re pleased with where it is.”
All total, 50 players were a part of the program in 2017 and all 50 played a new event, according to Monahan. That’s a list that included nearly all of the game’s best players from Spieth and McIlroy to Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.
This year that number has climbed to 53 players who must add a new event, or commit to play 25 events. Players who don’t meet the new requirement are subject to a “major penalty,” which under the Tour’s regulations would be a fine in excess of $20,000 or possible suspension.
It’s a sign of the policy’s widespread appeal that it’s been the carrot - not the stick - that’s motivated players to expand their horizons when it comes to scheduling.
Although Casey conceded that adding a new event for this season is a bit more “complicated,” players are given a list of options by the Tour and have found the process relatively painless and straightforward.
“I’ve contemplated something early in the fall, Las Vegas, Mexico, one of those. Las Vegas is easy and I’ve never played it,” said Casey, who fell one event short of the 25-tournament minimum in 2016-17.
McIlroy is reportedly considering adding the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am or the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, neither of which he’s ever played, to his schedule this season, or maybe both; while Adam Scott allowed himself to become a little overzealous last season and added two events, the St. Jude Classic and Shell Houston Open, to his dance card in 2017 that would have met the requirement.
“I kind of shot myself out of them for next year,” Scott laughed. “Actually really enjoyed going back to both those courses. It will be interesting to see where I might add next year. I would like to go back to the [AT&T] Byron Nelson, things like that are on the radar.”
And that was the Tour’s ultimate goal. Mandating starts was always going to be a delicate proposition for the circuit and maybe there’s room for improvement under the new guidelines. But given how far back and how contentious this debate has been, Monahan and company deserve credit for finding a solution to a problem that not long ago seemed unsolvable.