When the calendar turns, the New Year promises to bring a dramatically new PGA Tour, if not a fundamentally new game.
Not since Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer led a semi-revolution to break away from the PGA of America in 1969 to form the Tournament Players Division, which would later become the PGA Tour, has golf’s landscape been so drastically altered.
Change begins on Jan. 1 with the introduction of what officials called a simplification of the Rules of Golf. In the most sweeping revision of the rulebook in 60 years, the changes cover nearly every facet of the game, from embedded golf balls to penalty drops.
Perhaps the most notable of these changes will be the elimination of certain penalties. In 2019, there will be no penalty for what is called an “accidental double hit,” or if a ball in motion accidentally hits a player, caddie or flagstick. There’ll be no penalty for carrying a non-conforming club or if a ball-mark accidentally moves on a putting green.
But those adjustments to the rules will seem trivial by the time the Tour wraps up its traditional West Coast swing and begins a schedule that golf fans will find unrecognizable.
The biggest pieces of the revamped schedule will be the PGA Championship’s move to May and The Players’ transition back to March, where it had been played prior to 2007. One of the goals of the new schedule was to give golf ownership of a portion of the sports calendar, and the shifts produce five consecutive months of marquee events.
The new schedule also promises to create some congestion, particularly in the spring when there will be two World Golf Championships, The Players and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in the seven weeks before the Masters.
The PGA Championship’s transition to May from August was the linchpin of the new schedule, a move that allowed the Tour to finish the season in August and avoid going head-to-head with football. How it impacts that championship remains to be seen.
Next year’s PGA will be played at Bethpage in New York and three of the next five championships are scheduled to be held on northern venues, which might create issues depending on the severity of the winter.
The conclusion of the season will also have a condensed new look, with the final six weeks featuring the year’s final major (The Open), the new WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and three consecutive playoff events concluding at the Tour Championship, where the circuit will introduce a new strokes-based scoring system to determine the season-long champion.
As substantial as those changes will be, perhaps the most profound change beginning in 2019 will be how the game is played.
Distance has always been a crucial component of golf and the bomb-and-gouge types have simply taken that advantage to the competitive extremes, but the next iteration emerged this fall with the introduction of Cameron Champ, who promises to transform the game.
It would be a wild oversimplification to consider distance the lone arbiter of success at the highest level, but it’s the combination of power and relative precision that makes players like Champ so compelling.
“The guys who were from 303 to 315 [average yards off the tee] in distance, they averaged 55 percent fairways hit. [Justin] Rose was 304 at 66 percent,” said Sean Foley, the swing coach for both Rose and Champ. “When people say to me it’s all about bombing it, you don’t have to hit it straight anymore, that’s just not true.
“[Champ] on the Web.com Tour was like 70 percent [fairways hit] at 340 [yards]; he was ridiculous. Because of his speed he can hit these shots that really aren’t efficient in flight that carry 300 yards.”
In five events this fall as a rookie on Tour, Champ – who won in just his second start as a member at the Sanderson Farms Championship and has three top-10 finishes – is leading the Tour with a 328-yard driving average and is hitting 62 percent of his fairways. For historical context, in 1997 John Daly famously led the Tour with a 302-yard average but “Long John” hit just 53 percent of his fairways that season.
The notion that bombers are one-dimensional players who can only succeed on certain kinds of golf courses is no longer valid. These players now have the accuracy, wedge game and putting touch to fundamentally change the way the game is played.
What is certain is that the entire golf landscape, from the simplification of the rules to the condensed schedule, is poised for a dramatic makeover in 2019.