What to watch for in the 2018-19 PGA TOUR season

NZGM Presidents Cup
The Presidents Cup trophy (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Counting down the top four things to keep an eye on

4. Presidential Prayer: It’s been a trying stretch for the Presidents Cup International Team of late. The United States has won each of the last seven matchups, with the opposition only coming out on top once, in 1998, at Royal Melbourne (the internationals also famously coaxed a 17-17 tie in South Africa five years later).

Can Captain Ernie Els right the ship next December when the event returns to Australia’s Royal Melbourne once more? He was at the center of the event’s most memorable showdown, when he and Tiger Woods battled into the dark at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club before the match was called. Els has a roster of talented international players who appear primed to challenge the United States, including Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day and Si Woo Kim. They’ve all experienced the Presidents Cup in the past and may be ready to upend the favorites.

“As an International Team it’s a home field game for us, so we would like to think that we’re going to have the majority of the support,” Els said. “ … I think momentum is a big part in match play, team sport, and I think if we can get some putts moving our direction into the hole, like we did in 1998, I think the crowd can really get behind us a little bit more.”

Els played in THE CJ CUP recently, where he was able to size up potential team members. His international team may incur a youth movement of sorts this year with rookies like Korean Sungjae Im and Chilean Joaquin Niemann.

“There are so many Korean youngsters here this week, so I’m going to really see how they perform,” Els said of Im and other up-and-coming players. “Not only this week, we’ve got a whole year before the Presidents Cup starts and still a long way to go, but these guys, the young guys, are going to be really the core of our team.”

3. Welcoming Winners: Cameron Champ didn’t waste much time joining the lengthy list of PGA TOUR winners. It took just eight starts on TOUR—and only two appearances as a full-time member—for the 23-year-old to win, claiming the Sanderson Farms Championship by four strokes.

It should be the first of many for the long-hitting Champ, who averaged 343 yards off the tee in his victory. That was no fluke, either, as he also averaged the same distance last season on the Web.com Tour.

“I would definitely say my first few events on the Web were a little bit shaky,” he said. “Obviously it was only about seven, eight months ago. I just feel like my maturity level from then to now is dramatically different, just the way I approach the game, think about it. There is no pressure. I just play, and I think that’s just kind of what’s made me, I guess, progress as a player; but then also helped out this week.”

The bigger question is just how many first-time and rookie winners the PGA TOUR will see this season. A host of talented players have arrived in the hopes of challenging golf’s biggest stars, and all hope to ink their names into the history books sooner rather than later.

Im, who led the Web.com Tour money list wire to wire last season, should challenge Sunday leaderboards this season. So, too, should second-year player Niemann, who last year became the youngest player to ever earn TOUR Special Temporary Membership (it took the 19-year-old just five starts to accomplish the feat).

Mexico’s Abraham Ancer flirted with the first-round lead several times last season and also seems well positioned to finally break through in his second TOUR season.

Eleven players won a tournament for the first time last season. Will that number rise in 2019?

“I played well at [the] Safeway Open and I have more confidence now,” said Im, who tied for fourth at the season-opening event. “My goal for this year is to play in the TOUR Championship and to hopefully win an event.”

2. Surveying the Schedule: Dramatic changes are in store this season, a 46-tournament schedule that offers the FedExCup Playoffs moving from four to three events, a pair of new tournaments and a move back to March for THE PLAYERS Championship.

The revamped schedule should prove an exciting change for players and fans as they’re able to better follow a cadence of events highlighted by significant championships every month. That begins with THE PLAYERS’ schedule shift and the PGA Championship moving from August to May.

June’s Rocket Mortgage Classic and July’s 3M Open also join the calendar, while the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational relocates from Akron, Ohio, to Memphis, Tenn.

“It’s been our stated objective for several years to create better sequencing of our tournaments that golf fans around the world can engage in from start to finish,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said.

But it will be the FedExCup Playoffs incurring the biggest changes, and not only from its move to three events and an August finish. The season-ending TOUR Championship now features a simplified scoring system to determine the FedExCup champion, as a strokes-based bonus system related to the FedExCup standings through the BMW Championship will dictate where a player begins at East Lake.

The FedExCup points leader after the first two Playoffs events will begin the TOUR Championship at 10-under par. The next four players will start at 8-under through 5-under, respectively. The next five will begin at 4-under, regressing by one stroke per five players until those ranked Nos. 26-30 start at even par. With the implementation of this change, the player with the lowest total score will be the FedExCup champion and be credited with an official victory in the TOUR Championship competition. 

“Compared to the current system, the beauty here is in the simplicity,” Monahan said. “Fans are very familiar with golf leaderboards in relation to par, so they will have a clear understanding of the impact every shot makes during the final run for the FedExCup—ultimately leading to a singular champion without conflicting storylines.”

Meanwhile, a new U.S. $10 million Wyndham Rewards Top 10 is set to add even more drama to the Wyndham Championship, as the top-10 Regular Season finishers in FedExCup points through the event will take home additional earnings before the Playoffs. The leader will earn $2 million, followed by $1.5 million for the runner-up and the 10th-place finisher earning $500,000. That means a player’s performance every week becomes more critical than ever before, elevating the significance of each tournament on the schedule and producing drama for PGA TOUR fans at every turn.

“Season-long success is tantamount to qualifying for and advancing through the FedExCup Playoffs, and this is an exciting way to reward the best of the best and provide an added layer of drama for our fans in each market and around the world,” said Andy Pazder, Chief Tournament and Competitions Officer for the PGA TOUR.

1. Tiger Tracker: It was bound to come up. Tiger Woods, PGA TOUR winner for the first time since 2013, sitting at the dais with the TOUR Championship trophy beside him. “What does it mean to now be just two wins back of Sam Snead?”

“To get to the 80 mark is a big number,” Woods responded. “Sam is still ahead of me. I’ve still got, I feel like, a chance to play some more golf and maybe I’ll keep chipping away at that number and maybe surpass it.”

Woods captured the 80th PGA TOUR victory of his career in September, and now sits just two back of matching Snead on the all-time wins list. Snead won 82 times between 1936 and 1965.

His career back on track, Woods can, with three victories, surpass Snead this season. What seemed almost a certainty until 2014, when his back troubles began, may finally happen in 2019. It will undoubtedly be the biggest storyline to watch this season.

“I just think that what I’ve gone through and what I’ve dealt with, I’ve gotten lucky, to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I’ve gotten very lucky. I’m not playing a full contact sport … At 42 years old with a fused lower spine; that’s not going to happen.

“But in this sport, it can. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to have the people around me to have supported me and worked through this process with me, and I’ve ground out a chance to win golf tournaments again.”

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