ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – As a rule in professional golf, the fall has not normally been a time when dreams come true.
The time after the Tour Championship has traditionally been the realm of newcomers or journeymen looking to start something special or salvage a season, respectively, but one word has changed all that – wraparound.
With the introduction of the wraparound schedule on the PGA Tour last season, these once competitive afterthoughts have become something greater than the sum of their parts.
The results speak for themselves.
Last week in Mexico, a former major winner and perennial Ryder Cup star turned what was his worst year on Tour into a reason to enjoy the holidays.
It’s an even more vivid example of the increased importance of the fall schedule that Graeme McDowell followed his victory on Monday in Mexico with a drive north to play this week’s RSM Classic, where he again finds himself in the hunt following a third-round 65 that left him alone in third place.
When the Tour set out on the wraparound experiment, the thinking went that the top players, your Graeme McDowells, would play the WGC-HSBC Champions and maybe the CIMB Classic, two no-cut stops in Asia, while the bottom half of the Tour marquee would fill out the full-field stops.
Each week, however, the tee sheets have surprised.
At the season-opening Frys.com Open it was Justin Rose and Charl Schwartzel, a week later in Las Vegas it was Angel Cabrera and Webb Simpson, while McDowell and Keegan Bradley highlighted the field last week at the OHL Classic.
As Tour officials initially predicted, players have realized that taking the fall off is no longer a luxury that many can afford.
“I feel like the fall events are going to keep building,” said McDowell, who played just one fall stop (WGC-HSBC Champions) last season “You see a guy get off to a fast start and for me teeing off at the Honda Classic [next spring] it’s not enough if you want to compete against these guys.”
Simply put, spotting the field five or six starts is a mathematical gamble many players can no longer take now that success is measured in points and playoff starts.
Last season it was Sangmoon Bae – who won the Frys.com Open and added a top-5 finish at the CIMB Classic – who kick-started a year that ended with the South Korean making his first start at the Tour Championship.
This season it’s been Jason Bohn, who lost last week’s playoff to McDowell and also finished in the top 3 at the Frys.com Open and Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, who has banked a substantial FedEx Cup point total before the New Year (Bohn’s 560 points would have been good enough to rank inside the top 100 on last year’s FedEx Cup list).
It’s not as though players cherish the idea of getting back to work so quickly after last season – and Boo Weekley spoke for many earlier this fall when he lamented the lack of an offseason – but the alternative is too uncertain.
“I don’t know that players by and large are thrilled about it, but you feel an obligation to play so you don’t get your doors blown off [in the FedEx Cup race],” said Charles Howell III, who is making his fifth start of the season this week at Sea Island Resort. “But the neat thing is the guys are playing. It’s working making it part of the FedEx Cup and if the alternative is not having events this is a much better option.”
The Tour fueled this upgrade by giving fall events full FedEx Cup points and Augusta National helped with invitations to the Masters for fall winners.
Statistically, the plan has worked.
Of the five full-field fall events, the Las Vegas stop and Frys.com Open have both enjoyed substantial increases in the number of world ranking points awarded, while the other three events have maintained their field strength since the invent of the wraparound season.
But it’s with the players where the events have taken on a greater degree of importance, as evidenced by this week’s tee sheet, which includes the likes of Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar. Put another way, the rank-and-file are voting with their appearance, whatever the motivation is to forego an extended offseason.
“I’m not guaranteed anything this season so I have to play,” said Kevin Kisner, who holds a three-stroke lead heading into Sunday’s final round at the RSM Classic. “You can’t get that far behind on this Tour anymore.”
Nor can players afford to treat the fall as an afterthought anymore.