JERSEY CITY, N.J.—Fifty years ago, the PGA Championship found its spot. After bouncing around different dates in late July and early August, the year’s final major settled into the third-to-last weekend before Labor Day, a slot in which it would remain for nearly five decades.
But an announcement in 2017 that the PGA would shift to May meant there would be ripple effects. Several other events would have to be moved around, new tournaments would be created, and in addition, it was revealed that the FedEx Cup playoff format would be shortened from four events to three.
On the eve of the Northern Trust, the first of this season’s three-week sprint to crown a $15 million champion, it remains an open question whether the redesigned slate has ultimately had a positive impact for all parties—tournaments, players, and the PGA Tour itself.
“It’s been difficult on me,” Bryson DeChambeau, the defending champion this week, said prior to a Tuesday practice round at Liberty National. “[With] the season being condensed and the majors closer together, I can’t really find time to work on the things that I would like to test and work on.”
When the PGA moved to May, the Players Championship slid into mid-March, a period most pros previously spent gearing up for The Masters and the rest of the major championship season. After the change, the initial sentiment was that a more “uniform” schedule would create a more concrete offseason, enabling them to get more time off once the playoffs wrap up in the fall.
From the Tour’s perspective, shortening the length of the prime portion of the season would allow the biggest events to all be played prior to the start of football season, resulting in better TV ratings and attendance numbers. PGA Tour events in September had, in previous years, waged a futile battle with the NFL and college football for eyeballs.
As Bryan Crawford, tournament director of the RBC Canadian Open, explained, “It creates a reason to be interested every month of the season.”
His event, in particular, saw a bump in its overall strength of field. According to the Official World Golf Ranking’s strength of field metric, the Canadian Open jumped from 268 last year to 314. Much of that change was likely a consequence of the tournament’s new date; instead of being played in late July, the weekend immediately after the Open Championship, the 2019 edition was held the second weekend of June, right before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
A number of the world’s best players like to compete in a tournament the week before a major, and the only tournament the week before that major was the Canadian Open. Voila.
“We definitely tried to make the best of [the old spot] for those years,” Crawford said. “But at the end of the day, it was a roadblock that there wasn’t much we could do about, so it was what it was and to move out of the shadow of that, everyone knew right away that it was incredibly impactful.”
Several other tournaments during the heart of season saw a major bump in their strength of fields. The Arnold Palmer Invitational increased from 443 to 545, the Byron Nelson from 178 to 219, and the RBC Heritage from 371 to 460—all increases of 23 percent or more.
Like the Canadian Open, the Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson enjoyed the “week-before effect”—Bay Hill moved to the week just ahead of the Players, while the Byron Nelson now precedes the PGA.
"I think when you play, you get into stretches like this, you do get into some sort of flow,” McIlroy told reporters after winning the Canadian Open last month. “Part of the reason for playing here was I wanted my game to be in good shape for Pebble Beach, but [it] doesn't mean this tournament doesn't mean anything.”
At the same time, other tournaments that changed dates in 2019 saw their strength of field go the other way. Casualties of the changes, so to speak. The Honda Classic and Valspar Championship decreased by 20.5 and 13 percent, respectively, and the Wells Fargo Championship—which used to be the week before the Players, but this year came before the Nelson-PGA doubles—dropped by a whopping 31 percent, falling from 492 in 2018 to 338 this year.
“You can look at the Tour over the last several years, and each year, fields are getting more and more diluted from a rankings standpoint,” said Kendall Alley, who leads the operating committee for the Wells Fargo Championship. “With the fall schedule adding to the FedEx Cup, guys are spreading out their schedules when they look at the minimum number [of events] they have to play to be participative on the PGA Tour and to keep their membership in the majors and the World Golf Championship and the playoffs.”
Alley noted that although his event’s ticket sales were down—partially due to the absence of Tiger Woods, who opted not to play the Charlotte event after participating in 2018—Wells Fargo saw an increase in hospitality numbers and was neutral in terms of TV ratings.
That’s been the case across the board. PGA Tour television numbers are essentially unchanged from a year ago, but up double digits since 2017, even as overall linear TV ratings decline. The return of a certain Tiger Woods surely has everything to do with that, even if he’s played only four events since winning the Masters in April.
“I’ve cut the schedule quite a bit, and that’s the challenge now,” Woods said. “But the problem was, the season changed. And so now we’ve got a more condensed season, and it’s trying to figure out how to stay sharp, practice and also have my back feeling good all the time. It’s a challenge.”
Although the Tour declined to share its own metrics related to strength of field ratings, it noted “strong growth in consumption” on its digital platforms and social media channels.
And while multiple tournament directors shared the general sentiment that “what’s best for the PGA Tour is best for all of us,” players don’t all seem to be on the same page.
Ahead of the Open Championship last month, Justin Rose had harsh criticism for the new arrangement, particularly as it relates to golf’s four biggest events.
“It’s too condensed,” the former world No. 1 said. “As a professional in terms of trying to peak for something, the process that’s involved in trying to do that can be detailed and it can be longer than a month.
“For me a major championship should be the things that are protected the most. That’s how all of our careers ultimately are going to be measured. Thirty, 40 years ago there wasn’t a FedExCup, so if you’re trying to compare one career to another career, Jack versus Tiger, it’s the majors that are the benchmarks.”
It’s not to say that other pieces to the PGA Tour puzzle haven’t been impacted by the moves as well. Although the RBC Heritage Classic remained in its usual spot a week after The Masters, tournament director Steve Wilmot noted that several bleacher vendors had to completely rearrange their schedules in order to get things set up for the tournament in Hilton Head this time around. “It’s going to take a few years to truly get a feel,” Wilmot said. “There’s a lot of moving parts with this new schedule.”
When the 2018-19 season wraps up with the Tour Championship in Atlanta two weeks from now, expect many of the top players to carve out time for some good old rest and relaxation. After East Lake, the Tour’s elite likely won’t play until the inaugural Zozo Championship, which begins Oct. 24 in Japan, or the WGC-HSBC Champions event, which kicks off Oct. 31 in China.
For those outside the, say, top 50 in the world, though? No rest for the weary. There are only two weeks without tournaments between the Tour Championship and the Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, the first event of the 2019-20 season.
“I’m tired,” DeChambeau said, just as he’s gearing up to play three events in three weeks. “I’m very blessed to be able to play every single week for what we play for, but it’s about managing time now and trying to figure out what’s going to work best.”