This was always going to boil down to simple math.
When the PGA Tour unveiled this season’s condensed schedule the stated goals were clear – finish before professional and college football started and create a run of five consecutive months of major championships starting with The Players in March.
What wasn’t among those obvious objectives was a plan to increase participation, particularly among the game’s star set, but as the season closes in on the finish line (the playoffs begin in less than two months) the early math suggests that the game’s best responded to the uncertainty of the new schedule by playing more events.
Although the average number of starts on Tour this season is roughly the same (15.44 events) compared to last year’s average at this point (15.58) it’s how the new line up has impacted top players that’s worth noting.
The top 30 on the season-long points race are playing more this season, with the current average at 16.73 events compared to 16.36 events last year, and there seems to be little chance of those numbers dropping considering that five of the remaining events on the schedule include a major (The Open), a World Golf Championship (WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational) and three playoff events.
While the added events have left the game’s stars a tad road-weary, the condensed schedule has also created something of a philosophical shift for players.
“I don't view it as just this big week or this big week, it's a stretch of golf coming up and I'm excited about that,” Rory McIlroy said recently.
The new schedule, and particularly how the majors fit into that line up, forced players to break from their traditional dance cards and try something new.
Some of those new plans worked. Some didn’t.
For Justin Rose, who is currently ninth on the FedExCup points list, that change was an entire month (February) away from the Tour to prepare for what has turned out to be a grueling stretch since March.
“I got my preparation a little bit wrong going into Augusta is what it felt like. I took a month off in February and that was designed to really freshen me up going into Augusta and for the rest of the season,” said Rose, who finished tied for third at the U.S. Open. “I kind of came out of that month not playing as well as I would have hoped. I was always just sort of fighting my game a little bit, and then it's like you're sort of cramming for an exam.”
For Rose, there was an element of burn out and he was forced to adjust for the circuit’s stretch run. Others, however, embraced the new schedule much more effortlessly.
Jason Day has played three more events (16) than he had at this point last year, and with next week’s 3M Open on his schedule he’s on pace to play 22 events, the most he’s played in a single season since 2008.
“I like how the schedule goes now. I like how it's a big tournament every month starting with The Players, going all the way through to The Open Championship,” Day said. “For me personally, I think what I struggled with the most was going from like the U.S. Open to The Open, and now I'm going to play the 3M Open this year. But I like how kind of bunched they are because you're not taking time. I'm able to play a lot more and actually kind of hopefully play my way into good positive play.”
It remains to be seen if the top players will continue at this pace and some have suggested they might skip the new World Golf Championship in Memphis the week after The Open in Northern Ireland, but with a reduction in the number of playoff events this season from four to three and a greater focus on postseason performance with the new strokes-based format at the Tour Championship a late-season break would be unlikely and competitively foolish.
The more likely scenario is that players will take what they’ve learned this year and apply it to the 2019-20 season with a focus on early quality, not quantity.
“There is certainly a lot that I can learn going into it again next year,” Rose said.
But if this season has proven anything it’s that the simple math adds up. Avoiding football’s long shadow and creating a championship season may have been the primary goals of the new schedule but the added benefit of the top players playing more is certainly a pleasant byproduct.