Tiger Woods hasn't played a competitive round in 2021 but still should earn the largest share of the PGA Tour's Player Impact Program money, according to publicly available data and what we know about how the Tour will dole out its $40 million PIP fund.
That's according to my estimates based on the data, what the PGA Tour has said about the program and what has been reported by other golf outlets.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty, here's the background on the PGA Tour's PIP money. It is a $40-million counterpunch to the Premier Golf League, which reportedly was dangling large amounts of money to lure away PGA Tour stars. The PIP will distribute an eight-figure prize pool to the 10 players on the Tour with the top "Impact Score," including $8 million to the top player.
The program was not publicly known until Golfweek's Eamon Lynch revealed its existence back in April. According to his reporting, the "Impact Score" is based largely on a player's digital footprint, including search volume, Nielsen Brand ratings, Q rating and overall social media and digital impact. Here's the complete list, as far as we know:
- Popularity in Google searches
- Nielsen Brand Exposure rating (“rounds 3 and 4,” a PGA Tour spokesperson wrote in an email to SI.com)
- MVP Index rating, which “calibrates the value of the engagement a player drives across social and digital channels”
- Meltwater Mentions (a social-media monitoring tool)
Here's how I estimated who leads this season (you can see the raw data on a spreadsheet here).
I compared every top-50 golfer in the Official World Golf Rankings — plus Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler, since they would’ve been among the top 10 finishers in Impact Score in 2019 — head to head to Bryson DeChambeau on Google Trends to measure the relative search interest since the start of the season.
I chose DeChambeau as the relative litmus test, given the media coverage he drives. He also doesn’t drive so much coverage that he would dwarf any other player in a head-to-head comparison (e.g. Woods’ search interest is roughly five times that of DeChambeau this season, so comparing every player to Tiger does not make as much practical sense).
I also measured each player’s Twitter and Instagram following, as well as the number of Google News search results for each player, as a proxy for measuring the media coverage that a player drives, since some of the measures used in the Player Impact Program are not publicly available. I gave each player a ranking based on their Google Trends interest, Twitter and Instagram following, and Google News results, then created an aggregate ranking that weighed each category equally.
Tiger, of course, is recovering from injuries sustained during an automobile accident. But Woods is still eligible for the Player Impact Program, as are all current regular PGA Tour members who have played in at least five co-sponsored or approved Tour events in at least one of the previous five seasons. Also eligible are current PGA Tour Champions players who have played in at least 10 combined PGA Tour or Champions events in at least one of the previous five seasons.
Given that only one of the factors – the Nielsen Brand Exposure rating – is even tangentially tied to playing in tournaments, since that rating results from exposure a player generates on broadcasts, high-profile players who aren’t necessarily in contention on the Tour on a weekly basis could still earn a top Impact Score.
While player rankings from the FedExCup Points list aren’t part of a player’s Impact Score, a PGA Tour spokesperson wrote in an email, “although, one could argue that if a player is at the top of the FedExCup points list, then he’s playing well, will be in more media articles, more social chatter, etc.,” so there’s still an indirect tie to on-course performance in the program.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said at the Tour Championship that the program is based on the calendar year and the league has no plans to publicize who wins.
2021 PGA Tour Player Impact Program: Predicted Finish
Here are the players we project to finish in the top 10 of the PGA Tour Player Impact Program for 2021:
1. Tiger Woods
It should be no surprise that no one on the PGA Tour drives more Google search interest or media coverage, and no one eclipses his 6.5 million Twitter followers and 2.7 million Instagram followers.
A PGA Tour spokesperson confirmed that Woods is still eligible for the Player Impact Program.
2. Rory McIlroy
McIroy is second only to Tiger in Twitter and Instagram following, and he’s third in Google News results, so the four-time major winner and two-time leading PGA Tour money-winner will likely bring home a significant chunk of change from the debut season of the Player Impact Program.
3. Jordan Spieth
Spieth excels across social media with two million Twitter followers and 1.6 million Instagram followers, both of which rank fourth among the players examined.
4. Phil Mickelson
The reigning PGA Championship winner and six-time major champ has shown that it’s not only millennials who have a good handle on social media. His 1.2 million Instagram followers rank fifth among the players examined and his roughly 782,000 Twitter followers were 11th.
Only five players have more Google News results, as Lefty continues to drive media coverage.
5. Dustin Johnson
The No. 2 player in the world has a combined Instagram and Twitter following of more than two million and he ranks second in media coverage, based on Google News results.
6. Bryson DeChambeau
DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, has stayed in the top 10 of the OWGR for roughly a year, with only one week ranked outside of the top 10 at No. 11, and right now he’s part of the conversation — however you want to define that, in terms of social, digital and related media interest — as much as almost any player on the PGA Tour.
7. Rickie Fowler
As of early October, Fowler is ranked No. 125 in the OWGR, with his best finish in the 2020-21 season being a T8 at the PGA Championship. He missed the cut in four of his last nine tournaments and he finished in the top 30 just twice.
But Fowler is still one of golf’s biggest stars — with stars being defined by the metrics that go into his Impact Score.
8. Justin Thomas
Golfweek reported that “it’s believed the formula used to calculate Impact Scores will distinguish between positive and negative coverage a player generates.” When Morning Read analyzed the search interest in PGA Tour players using Google Trends, which measures search interest online, search interest in Thomas spiked in January, when he was caught on a hot mic saying a homophobic slur. Thomas and Fowler had the same average score in our analysis, so we gave Fowler the edge, given that not all of Thomas’ publicity was good publicity.
In an email to Morning Read, a PGA Tour spokesperson said, “The Commissioner has discretion to modify a player’s impact score due to negative coverage if needed,” when asked, in general, about potential negative impacts of negative media coverage.
9. Brooks Koepka
Koepka was the world’s No. 1 player this time last year and he has since dropped as far as 13th in the OWGR, but he climbed back into the top 10 with three consecutive top-six finishes at the U.S. Open, Travelers Championship and Open Championship. Among the players examined, Koepka ranks between eighth and 12th in Twitter following, Instagram following and Google News results.
10. Jon Rahm
The world’s No. 1 player and the reigning U.S. Open winner is still a relative newcomer to the PGA Tour, having turned pro in 2016, but he drives more media coverage than anyone not named Tiger, DJ or Rory, according to Google News results, and he’s the fifth-most searched player on Google this season, based on Google Trends.
Players just outside the top 10 (and Jim Herman)
Here are the players who just missed the cut: Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Tony Finau, Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Reed.
It’s also worth highlighting Jim Herman, the world’s No. 162 player, who has become something of a sarcastic heel to the Player Impact Program and its $40-million prize pool. After DeChambeau and Koepka’s 12-hole competition in Las Vegas during Thanksgiving week was announced in early October, Herman quote tweeted Golf Digest, writing, “The best way to show you’re not falling for this #thirstTrap is by liking and retweeting me. #PiP #40,000,000.”
The hashtags #PiP and #40,000,000 have become favorites of Herman, whether he’s tweeting about his alma mater Cincinnati and its undefeated start to the college football season, or advocating that the carpool line at his local school district should be determined by parents’ Official World Golf Ranking.
As entertaining as Herman’s campaign has been and as valid as his underlying point might be, he unfortunately won’t factor into the 2021 Player Impact Program. His combined Twitter and Instagram following barely cracks 20,000 and his relative search interest online compared to DeChambeau doesn’t register on Google Trends.