Mike Wilson looks ahead to a year of what is, for men’s professional golf, a period of unprecedented change for a sport in urgent need of a fillip.
With the latest edition of the PGA TOUR already underway, a 2018 – 19 season of substantial and significant change, other, secondary circuits have no alternative but to fall into line, to take the lead from the Florida-based birddog in this, according to Chinese mythology, the Year of the Dog.
As the eleventh animal in Chinese zodiac, the Dog is said to be a symbol of loyalty and honesty.
People born in the Year of the Dog are considered to possess the best traits of human nature, honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward, venerable and have a strong sense of responsibility
But if you are looking for a sign in the stars for top golfing talent born in this, the Year of the Dog, they are remarkably few and far between.
Five-time ‘Major’ champion Phil Mickelson and multiple women’s champion Annika Sörenstam were both born in 1970, a Year of the Dog, as was 2018 USA Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, but that’s about it.
But 2019, the Year of the Dog has the potential to be one of the most innovative and transformative in living memory, thanks to the PGA TOUR conducting a major overhaul of its schedule, with other circuits, such as the European and Asian Tours and the LPGA Tour either fitting-in or facing a clash they cannot conceivably win
Most notably – and for the first time in a generation – the schedule changes announced by CEO JAY Monahan are far from simply cosmetic
Indeed, they are radical.
First-up, the FED Ex Play-off Series is reduced from four to three events, the Northern Trust, the BMW Championship and, finally, the TOUR Championship, presented by Coca Cola, each carrying a US$9.25m prize fund.
As the ‘Regular season,’ has been whittled-down, from four to three tournaments – and nobody at the Ponte Vedre, Florida HQ can explain why Dell Technologies has been removed from the 2018 / 19 schedule, the top 125 players after the Wyndham Championship will compete in The Northern Trust, with 70 qualifying for the BMW Championship and the traditional top 30 contesting the title-deciding Tour Championship
Monahan says, unconvincingly for much of the 100-plus press corps, “Compared to the current system, the beauty here is in the simplicity,” but his fellow American, world number four Justin Thomas begs to differ, insisting the revised format will be, “Very, very weird,” adding, “It’s something that’s going to be hard to get used to.
The PGA TOUR Commissioner concluded, “You take these changes and you combine them with the new and improved schedule, and we think this is a significant step forward.”
From 2019, a new handicap system at the Tour Championship will also mean the overall leader starts on 10-under-par, with second place two shots behind. The third ranked player will start at seven-under-par, with fourth and fifth place in the standings starting at six-and –five-under respectively.
Then, the next five in the rankings will begin at four-under-par, with scores regressing by one shot for every five players until those ranked between 26th and 30th, who will start at level-par.
There’s a whole lot of money on offer, an in a country fixated by the greenback and in love with ostentations expressions of wealth, that’s just about enough to grab the much needed headlines, galleries and all-important TV ratings.
But, when asked whether the lack of a level playing field for the Tour’s reworked end-of-season format, which has already been signed-off by the TOUR and its hugely influential Players Committee, Thomas, one of the favourites to lift the gargantuan reward said, “[It goes] against the grain of what makes sport special”.
Shrinking its flagship final series from four to three is only part of what is, when closely examined, much more than a cosmetic makeover.
This is a major shake-up of the rewards on offer ahead of the season-ending day of reckoning; the Bonus Pool has increased, from a mere US$25m to an eye-watering US$60m. The overall winner could take home close to a staggering US$25m.
The most obvious knock-on effect is that the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth is forced to move to the autumn, to mid-September
The early season emphasis looks set to be an arm-wrestle between the top-10 on the Official World Golf Ranking, American Brooks Koepka, winner of two ‘Majors,’ last year battling to hold on to top spot, in the face of Mr. ‘Ever Ready,’ who just keeps going, aka England’s Justin Rose.
The rearrangement of the elite end of the PGA TOUR schedule, ‘Majors,’ WGC tournaments, FedEx Play-offs and the Players, the most intriguing element of the global game – notwithstanding the phantom-like spectre of the ethereal World Golf Tour (20 tournaments each worth US$20m) which remains as much in the melting pot as ever – is the month of September.
Mention of an, ‘Underperforming,’ European Tour may sound harsh, especially with the debut of the controversial US$3.5m Saudi International. A four-year extension to the BMW PGA Championship, displaced to the tail-end of the season, does little to disguise the challenges.
But, if the European Tour is finding life tough, spare a thought for the Asian Tour, with which it has a vague, multi-year, ‘Strategic Vision,’ a similar arrangement the Wentworth and Singapore outfits have with the Korean Tour, the South African Sunshine Tour and the Australasian PGA circuit.
Whilst in principle, the absence of a full Asian Tour 2019 schedule before Christmas need not be sinister, the portents for what is the friendliest and most colourful circuit in golf cannot be good, the Singapore-based circuit resembling a dinghy adrift in a stormy sea and at the mercy of far bigger ships.
But, whilst the Ladies European Tour remains in intensive care, and South Africa, where it is all-but extinct, there exists scope for growth in the women’s game. If care is taken to develop the concept – and the recently announced Women’s World Golf Series can be woven into the wider LPGA landscape – women’s golf could be on the cusp of fulfilling its full potential, as a product in its own right as opposed to a minor adjunct to the men’s game, which looks set to continue to, at best, at worst, diminish at both professional and participative levels.
And with the Tokyo Olympic Games a little over a year away, golf in general, and ladies golf in particular – especially in Asia – 2019 could, and arguably should prove to be a defining year, in keeping with the customs and character of the Year of the Dog.
Otherwise, in the dog-eat-dog, cutthroat commercial world of professional sport, the game of golf could end-up appearing more like a dog-in-the-manger, a sport that barks but rarely bites, consigned to a dog’s life, but hoping that the old adage, that every dog has its day will prevail.