When the PGA Tour broke with tradition and first attempted to emerge from football’s consuming shadow in 2007 there was plenty of unfiltered skepticism.
Prior to the move to a fractured schedule, the 2006 Tour Championship served as a true big finish. The final putt dropped on Nov. 5 and other than a few unofficial hit-and-giggle events that was it for professional golf in the U.S. until January.
But that true finale changed in ’07 when the Tour introduced the FedExCup and what was then called the Fall Series with a slate of seven events played after the Tour Championship, that served only to produce playing opportunities and allow members a chance to keep their jobs.
Many viewed the experiment as a needless watering down of the product and an economically unviable prospect. There simply didn’t seem to be enough interest among the hard-core golf fans to support what many considered a “fall league,” and the post-season wasteland was reduced to six events by ’09.
“There were 100 people following the final group last Sunday [at the Fry’s Electronics Open],” Steve Flesch said in 2007. “It's like a glorified club championship. I don't think that's what the Tour intended. And I think they need to address it.”
Whether it was a lack of fan interest or the economic realities of a post-Tour Championship world, the Tour stepped in to create a wraparound schedule in 2013 with the fall events stationed at the front of the line and serving as a springboard for players to get a jumpstart on the season-long points race.
Points earned during the fall events now counted in the quest to East Lake and a victory in the fall also qualified a player for the Masters, which is no small carrot.
“[It] certainly strengthened the fall events significantly and we're starting to see the repercussions of that now and the next couple of years in terms of purse growth, quality of those tournaments,” then-commissioner Tim Finchem said. “The wraparound also allowed us to complete the season, everything at the same time.”
The wraparound concept created a tidy package for the Tour, but would the move, as Finchem suggested, improve the quality and appeal of the fall events? That answer, however anecdotally, can now be seen on the calendar. Although the Tour hasn’t released the 2019-20 schedule, players were sent this year’s fall lineup this week for scheduling purposes.
This slate will include 11 events played in six different countries. That’s nearly a full quarter of the Tour schedule (23 percent) and based on 2019 estimates, the fall represents $78 million in total purse.
The fall begins at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, which transitioned from the pre-Tour Championship schedule, Sept. 12-15 and two weeks after the post-season finale at East Lake. There will be new stops in Houston (Oct. 10-13), Japan (Oct. 24-27) and Bermuda (Oct. 31-Nov. 3), as well as a three-week Asian swing that begins with the CJ Cup (Oct. 17-20) and concludes with the WGC-HSBC Champions in China (Oct. 31-Nov. 3).
The weaker fields, which have always been a concern for the fall events, will also improve incrementally in 2019. Tiger Woods is scheduled to play the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan and the Asian events have annually drawn stronger fields as top players have become reluctant to take extended breaks.
This year’s condensed schedule will also give top players a reason to consider adding to their fall dance cards. The Tour Championship will be played a month earlier in late August and most of the stars in the game would probably not be inclined to take four months off. There’s also the volatility of the season-long points race that will put players in the unenviable position of playing catch up if they decide to sit on the sidelines until the New Year.
But it’s not so much how the players have embraced the fall schedule as it is the corporate support that’s given the events sustained life. Companies like RSM and Safeway, which are both fall staples, have created tournaments that transcend star power in their communities while also serving corporate needs.
The shift to a condensed schedule dictated some of the reshuffling to the fall and it’s worth noting the Tour lost the CIMB Classic, which had been played in the fall since 2010, from the line up, but that only serves to detail the fall’s growth, not diminish it.
The fall events will always be something of a niche on Tour, but as next year’s schedule proves it’s a viable niche that serves a purpose for both players and sponsors that goes well beyond the Tour’s original plan in 2007.