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Does the PGA Tour's Player Impact Program work? The players ... think so

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Even before LIV Golf upended the status quo and turned the ancient game contentious, few topics could universally unite tour pros like Tiger Woods. 

And even the PGA Tour’s esoteric Player Impact Program can’t cloud that.

“It is a little confusing how (the PIP) works, but it does seem to work. Tiger won again, so as long as he's winning, it's not broken, so that's good,” shrugged Max Homa, the poster child for what the original PIP was attempting to identify.

Homa’s Everyman appeal on social media — combined with a game that has lifted him into the top 20 in the world ranking and five Tour titles — was exactly the type of “positive” reach the circuit envisioned when it concocted the bonus pool last year. However, when this year’s PIP winners were announced last week, the 32-year-old was 14th on the adjusted list.

Full-field tee times from the Hero World Challenge

“I'm frustrated I lost to [Kevin] Kisner, I'm not quite sure how that happened. Played better than him, carried him at the QBE last year, so not sure how I lost to him, so that was disappointing,” Homa said with a smile, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “I am surprised that I'm [ranked] 16 in the world and I was 14 on the PIP. I always thought I was significantly more popular than I was good at golf, so it feels nice that those things are aligning, so that's a little mini bonus. But at the end of the day, I'll take 14th is pretty good.”

The new PIP criteria, which was adjusted this year, removed the MVP Index, which was based on a player’s social media reach, engagement and Q-Score, in favor of a pair of awareness scores from “golf fans” and the “general population,” respectively. 

For Homa and his 489,000 followers on Twitter, the new measurements probably hurt his score and cost him some bonus money. But who knows?

Two separate memos were sent to players last week outlining each of the five PIP categories and how the scores are tabulated, but a limited survey of the game’s top players this week reveals a profound lack of understanding.

Jon Rahm favored at Hero World Challenge

Jon Rahm favored at Hero World Challenge

Given the extended explanations of how the sausage is made – which included references to measurement criterion, normalized datasets and an independent verification process by Grant Thornton – it should be no surprise that athletes with a singular focus of perfecting their craft probably haven’t spent much time studying the algorithms.

“It's just hard with how the criteria is and how you look at it and how you use it. I'm not nearly smart enough to figure that out, that's why there's people that [do understand it],” said Jon Rahm, who was fifth on the PIP. “Because of how hard it can be to understand and to make a proper program, if you play good golf, it usually takes care of itself.”

It’s an understandable take, but given how important the PIP list has become, players should probably dig a little deeper.

It’s not just the bonus money, which ranged from $18 million for Woods to $2 million for those finishing 15th to 20th on the final list, that makes the PIP meaningful. Perhaps more important than the bonus is how the list will dictate who the Tour designates as a top player and how those players will be compensated.

The redefined and expanded PIP was a direct response to LIV Golf and the guaranteed contracts the startup circuit has offered to woo some of the game’s top players away from the Tour. Along with the PIP bonus money, the top 20 from the list will be required to play 12 “elevated events,” which include increased purses and, according to multiple sources, limited fields starting in 2024.

According to one member of the Tour’s Player Advisory Council, every move the circuit will make in the coming months and years is designed to better compensate the game’s top players as defined by the PIP.

It’s why the math and the datasets and abstract measurements deserve a tad more scrutiny than the game’s best appear to be giving it.

Consider Woods, the consensus “impact” player who has finished first on the first two PIP lists. According to the raw data, he finished first among all Tour players in Google searches, Meltwater Mentions, Q-Score and MVP Index and 41st in Nielsen scores, which measure how long a player’s sponsor logos appear on screen during Saturday and Sunday Tour telecasts. In Woods’ only three weekend rounds this year, he shot 78, 78, 79 and was never in contention.

Max Homa looks to continue resurgence at Hero World Challenge

Max Homa looks to continue resurgence at Hero World Challenge

By comparison, Scottie Scheffler enjoyed a breakout season with four Tour victories, including his triumph at the Masters, and finished second at the Tour Championship. He was first among Tour types in Nielsen scores, which is a testament to how many times he was in contention on the weekend. He finished seventh on the final PIP list, however, thanks to poor scores in both MVP Index (social media) and Q-Score.

Tour officials are optimistic the new criteria which largely removes the social media component in favor of a more scientific method will help smooth the rougher edges of the program and create a more easily digestible ranking. But then officials with the world ranking had suggested similar hopes when its most recent overhaul was unveiled this year and the result has been beyond confusion.

Perhaps Woods' name atop the list, followed closely by Rory McIlroy in second, is all the validation the Tour needs. But given what’s at stake, a little more clarity and understanding would be best for everyone.