GAINESVILLE, Va. – Professional golf is often considered the most democratic of all sports.
There are no guaranteed contracts, no rookie minimums, no franchise tags to create competitive safety nets that can ease the transition through bouts of less-than-stellar play. In golf, a player is what his record says he is regardless of name recognition and star power.
That’s not to say, however, all PGA Tour players are created equal, with status determined by a detailed priority ranking based on 37 categories.
Similarly, Tour events are relegated to a less defined yet very real pecking order, although those calling the shots at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., would be reluctant to concede that point.
Of the 47 Tour events there are varying shades of “haves” and “have nots,” starting with the majors atop that pyramid of influence and working down through the World Golf Championships and assorted invitational events to rank-and-file tournaments, which is where the wheat and the chaff are often separated by the slimmest of margins or, in some cases, a date on a calendar.
As one former tournament director once opined, “I’m just the redneck between the Golden Bear [Jack Nicklaus’ affiliation with the Honda Classic] and the King [Arnold Palmer’s annual stop at Bay Hill].”
While this has been a reality for some time it’s arguably never been as evident as it is this week as the circuit gathers for Tiger Woods’ own Quicken Loans National just outside Washington, D.C.
In its ninth year, the Quicken Loans has become, if not a “must play” stop, then a mid-summer Tour staple.
While the event maintained solid fields early in its development, an awkward date combined with an increasingly crowded schedule has eroded the tournament’s competitive turnstile.
Consider that in 2007, the first year the event was played, winner K.J. Choi received 62 world ranking points.
That number hovered around 50 for the next three years before dropping to 44 in 2011. Two years later officials had the Quicken Loans National moved away from the Fourth of July weekend and the field, at least according to the world ranking math, improved.
But this year that number has dropped to an all-time low, with Sunday’s winner projected to earn 34 world ranking points. To put that in context, that’s the same number of points awarded to Fabian Gomez for winning last month’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Or, put another way, that’s less than the winners of the Greenbrier Classic or RBC Heritage or Travelers Championship received, and well below the points awarded at the Memorial and Arnold Palmer Invitational, events the Quicken Loans National would be immediately compared to given Woods’ status as the event’s host.
Just two of the top 10 players in the world, defending champion Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, are in this week’s field at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, and only three of the top 20.
Some will point to the first-year course as a possible reason for the relatively weak field, and while RTJ is no Congressional, the event’s normal Washington, D.C., area home, it has hosted three Presidents Cups and has received widespread praise from players this week.
“I want to thank Robert Trent Jones Golf Club for having us here this year for the first time,” Woods said Tuesday to open his media meet-and-greet.
The real culprit here seems to be math.
When the Tour transitioned to a split-calendar schedule last year it condensed a handful of high-profile events into a small window, leaving top players having to make tough choices.
Consider the plight of Fowler, who took last week off to prepare for a run that will include seven starts in nine weeks, a lineup that includes a major (PGA Championship), World Golf Championship (Bridgestone Invitational) and four FedEx Cup playoff events.
“Really just making sure that I’m well rested,” Fowler said. “It’s going to be a tough little stretch of a lot of golf.”
It will be similar for Rose, who returned from the United Kingdom on Tuesday to ready himself for the grueling closing leg of the Tour season.
“It’s a condensed schedule right now. You’re trying to think about your rhythms and when you play well and what times of year you play well,” Rose said. “It’s about winning tournaments and playing places where you feel you can win.”
Historically, the standard Tour line when it comes to setting a schedule is that the quality of the golf course is the most important element when deciding what events to play. But with the advent of an increasingly busy lineup a new litmus test has surfaced.
For many players, it’s a question of diminishing returns, which largely explains this week’s field at the Quicken Loans National. And it’s a phenomenon that won’t be rectified anytime soon considering an even more crowded schedule with golf’s return to the Olympics next year.
Nothing else would explain how an event that checks off all of the right boxes – high-profile host, endearing golf course, large purse ($6.7 million) – has suddenly been boxed into the wrong corner of the Tour schedule.