CHIBA, Japan – Before the days of wraparound schedules and playoff finales, the unofficial line was that the PGA Tour season didn’t begin until Doral, which annually kicked off the Florida swing.
The West Coast was where the competitive year may have started and the major championship season has always ran through Magnolia Lane in April, but for players accustomed to the familiar ebb and flow it was the former Miami stop where things got serious.
Those days are gone with the Tour bolting Doral in 2016 for Mexico City and the invent of wraparound golf. Depending on the player, the season could begin in West Virginia in September or Southern California in January.
What has started to crystallize for players of all levels is the undeniable importance of the fall events. Once considered an afterthought for the game’s titans, this year’s move to a condensed season has injected the fall with added importance.
Nearly one-fourth of the Tour’s season is now played in the fall. It’s a statistical reality that has forced even the game’s best players to interrupt their off-season and get back to work. This new normal is most obvious during the circuit’s Asian swing which began last week at the CJ Cup and includes this week’s Zozo Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions.
Last week’s CJ Cup included the world’s top-ranked player, Brooks Koepka, and a strength of field of 368, which was better than the field at this year’s Honda Classic to kick off the Florida swing.
This week’s inaugural event in Japan includes world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who is making his only start this fall on Tour, and Tiger Woods, who has never played a fall event since the Tour went to a wraparound schedule.
For most players it’s hard to find a reason not to play at least one of the Asian events.
All three stops have limited fields (78 players), no cut and feature lucrative purses and a chance to earn valuable FedExCup points long before they reach the heart of the season.
Some players, like Justin Thomas, have been particularly prolific in Asia. Thomas’ victory last week at the CJ Cup was his fourth in Asia and the second time he’s won that event in three years. He also won the 2016 and ’17 CIMB Classic, which was replaced on the Asian swing by the Zozo Championship.
“It's been huge. I mean, this time of year I like playing,” said Thomas, who has won $6.47 million in nine Tour starts in Asia. “I need to figure out something I'm not doing in the summer that I'm doing this time of year or we just need to add more events in Asia, one or the other.”
The Tour transitioned to the wraparound calendar for the 2013-14 season with six events and little fanfare. Only the World Golf Championship in China drew any of the top players, and the fall was largely seen as a chance to give middle-of-the-road types playing opportunities.
That started to change as players realized the benefits of banking FedExCup points early, and in consecutive years (2017 and ’18) the Tour grew the importance of traveling to Asia with the addition of the CIMB Classic and CJ Cup, respectively.
Players who were once reluctant to travel across the globe to compete now see the benefits of making the effort.
“Looking back over the last several years you've seen with the fall more top players playing and playing more often, and I think with these three events in Asia and the quality of the fields, we're seeing that trend continue,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.
This season’s expanded fall schedule now includes tournaments at the Greenbrier in West Virginia and Houston, which both transitioned from the regular portion of the schedule to the fall this season, as well as a new event in Bermuda. But it’s the addition of the Zozo Championship that has allowed the Tour to create a compelling lineup during a time of year that most top players considered an off-season.
And if the lure of guaranteed money and FedExCup points wasn’t enough to draw players across the Pacific Ocean, the timing of the new schedule helps the cause.
With the introduction of the condensed schedule, the season now ends in August and players simply aren’t going to take four months off before showing up in Hawaii to start the regular season. The Asian events are perfectly positioned to break up the offseason.
The Asian swing may not be where the new Tour season begins, but it’s certainly where the game’s top players start thinking about the season.