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Rory McIlroy says 'play better' if you want to be a top player, but it's not that easy

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ATLANTA – With the stated goal of bringing the top players together to compete against each other more often, Wednesday’s hasty unveiling of an elevated schedule was, if nothing else, an impressive feat, considering the degree of difficulty.

Just one week after Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and 21 of golf’s other top stars huddled in a Wilmington, Delaware, hotel to plot a course forward for a league embattled by a “non-economic motivated actor” in LIV Golf, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and his staff pulled together a reimagined schedule, substantial monetary benefits and an overhauled way to identify the game’s most important players.

To be fair, the Tour had already moved the furniture around and created the early elements of what is set to become a 15-event elevated series, which will largely feature tournaments with limited fields and purses that average $20 million. Officials had also started looking under the hood of the Player Impact Program (PIP) when Tiger, Rory and Co. appeared to join the player empowerment movement last week.

Full-field tee times from Tour Championship

Still, what Monahan laid out Wednesday at the Tour Championship – an additional four elevated events that will be announced in 45 days and a move to identify the game’s top 20 players via the nip/tucked PIP – fully tackles the main takeaway from today: more top players will be going head-to-head more often.

The elevated events also come with a stipulation that top players, as defined by the PIP, must play at least 20 events, including 12 of the elevated tournaments, the majors, The Players and three additional FedExCup events. That is a dramatic increase over the previous Tour minimum of 15 events.

Wednesday’s announcement also came with a rollout that included an “earnings assurance program” (fully exempt members at the Korn Ferry Tour priority category and above are guaranteed to make at least $500,000 each season) and a travel stipend of $5,000 for every missed cut.

Tour: Sweeping changes to money, schedule

In the wake of last week’s players-only meeting, the PGA Tour has responded with a sweeping overhaul of its schedule.

The Tour doesn’t do anything quickly, so even Monahan had to admit this was an “atypical” move, which at least partially explains where the basic concept of getting the top players together more often runs crashing into the details.

The reworked PIP has, at least partially, removed the social media and Q-Score aspect of the calculations and replaced it with “awareness criteria.” The methodology now includes two separate awareness scores – general and golf fan awareness.

Exactly how that score is calculated and where that data originates, however, remains a mystery, which has always been the problem with the PIP. But now it's even more concerning, considering the added importance in both money (the bonus pool has been expanded to $100 million) and prestige with the top 20 PIP finishers dubbed “top players.”

“Anyone has a chance to play their way into these elevated events. Anyone has a chance to feature in the Player Impact Program,” McIlroy said Wednesday at East Lake. “There's nothing stopping guys from playing in these elevated events. There's nothing stopping guys from getting in the PIP. You just play better. You work your ass off, you play better, and if you do that, you will get into these events. That's as simple as it is.”

With a monsoon of respect to McIlroy – and it’s important to note that no one, not even Woods, has taken on the role of PGA Tour advocate more forcefully and eloquently than the Northern Irishman – the old trope “play better” rings wildly hollow here.

Are new PGA Tour changes enough to rival LIV Golf?

Are new PGA Tour changes enough to rival LIV Golf?

It remains to be seen how the reworked PIP will play out, but it’s impossible to ignore last year’s list, which included Woods and Phil Mickelson as the top two finishers, respectively. One of those players, Woods, didn’t hit a shot in an official Tour event and spent the year recovering from injury and the other, Mickelson, had just one top 10 - his victory at the PGA Championship - and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship.

For a young player fresh off the Korn Ferry Tour, the notion of “play better” doesn’t work under that system, because that list was clearly driven by things outside the field of play. Six of last year’s top 10 players from the final FedExCup points list – including winner Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland – didn’t finish inside the top 10 on the PIP.

“Play better” makes for good headlines and soundbites, but it paints an overly simplified picture for young players with aspirations to join that coveted club. By shifting more significance to the PIP, as well as more financial resources, the Tour will need to be abundantly clear about how young players can ascend the ranks to top player status.

Perhaps the overhauled PIP does that. By removing the social media element, the 2023 model will likely create a list that’s driven more by performance, not personality, but exactly what that looks is unclear.

“I had a conversation with one player who wasn’t in the PIP [last year] who has had a really great two years, and I said to him he’s still a fairly new player on Tour,” Billy Horschel said. “I don’t think it’s a popularity contest, and, yes, it might have a little bit of that, but it’s the guys who have been out here the longest and have had success that people know - it takes time.”

Getting the top players together more often was the goal, and there’s no denying that the Tour pulled that off in an impressively small window, but now the challenge is to more clearly define and accurately identify exactly who those top players are.