Looking Ahead on the PGA Tour
Last month, the PGA Tour released the 2017-2018 schedule, and while not much changed (it looks like we will have to wait another year or two before the talks of the PGA Championship moving to May and THE PLAYERS moving back to March come to fruition), there are a few new wrinkles that should provide some interest. Here are some news, notes and highlights of the upcoming PGA Tour schedule.
The Fall Silly Season is a little less silly. It has been a few years since the PGA Tour moved to what they call the “wraparound season,” featuring a slate of events in October and November to kick off the “season” that have slightly weaker fields and slightly smaller purses (but not by much), but still considerable amounts of FedEx Cup points. As uninteresting these events are from the fan’s perspective (really, to the avid PGA Tour fan, the “season” doesn’t start until Torrey Pines and the Farmers Insurance Open in late January), the October-November stretch of tournaments is great for young Tour players and Web.com Tour grads looking to establish themselves on Tour and get a jump on earning their card for the following year.
Since the first wraparound season began in the fall of 2013, some now-well-known names notched their first (or one of their first) wins during the October-November slate of events, including Jimmy Walker (now a major champion), Charley Hoffman, Chris Kirk, Harris English, Robert Streb, Smylie Kaufman, Justin Thomas (another major winner), Kevin Kisner, Cody Gribble, Pat Perez and more. I know that, as a fan, there is little reason to spend a Sunday afternoon watching golf during October and November – except MAYBE for during the HSBC Champions, the first WGC event of the year – but at least the Tour has created a schedule of events that showcases the young talent and grinding veterans, and gives guys chances to prolong their careers.
The PGA Tour builds a permanent stop in South Korea. In mid-October, the Tour will, for the first time, hold an official event in South Korea, The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in Seoul. The field will be one of the smallest on Tour, featuring just 78 players, and a small portion of the field will be dedicated to featuring the best talent that South Korea has to offer. After the wild success of the 2015 Presidents Cup – played in Korea – with local fans, the Tour was eager to find a more permanent home in the golfing hotbed. With Korea (and much of eastern Asia) being deeply represented on the LPGA Tour for quite a while, it only made sense that the PGA Tour would eventually find its way there as well, hoping to capitalize on a booming interest in golf among the country’s youth. In 2016, 20 players from Korea had membership on either the PGA TOUR or Web.com Tour. On the PGA TOUR’s international-player roster, the 12 Korean members for the 2016-17 season is exceeded only by the 15 from Australia.
An underwhelming series of major venues will hopefully still provide great drama. The major rotation this year features Augusta (of course), the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in New York, The Open Championship at Carnoustie and the PGA at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. Doesn’t exactly get you fired up to watch 8 months in advance, does it? I have been pretty critical lately of the USGA and their venue choices as of late, as they’ve traded in the classic, thick-roughed, tree-lined, tight-fairways courses for these open, links-style venues that have felt very un-U.S. Open-like (and produced some very un-U.S. Open-like scores), and Shinnecock Hills checks many of those same boxes. The course is old, I’ll give the USGA that (built in 1892), and has hosted four previous U.S. Opens, with the last coming in 2004, where Retief Goosen narrowly edged out Phil Mickelson. But, when you tune in next June, you’ll see a barren, links-style course that is dependent on wind to truly make it diabolical, featuring no trees and burnt, brown wispy rough.
Carnoustie does offer some serious power in the Open Championship rotation, and is one of the most famed courses in all of Scotland. It last hosted a British Open in 2007, with Padraig Harrington taking home the Claret Jug, and is most famous (as least in recent years) for being the site of the epic collapse of Frenchman Jean van de Velde in 1999. So, at least the past tournament highlights should be good.
The biggest head scratcher is Bellerive Country Club, host of the 2018 PGA Championship. Located in St. Louis, the club does have some history with the Tour, last hosting a PGA Tour event in 2008 (the BMW Championship), and having held a U.S. Open in 1965 and a PGA in 1992. Visually, it should be more appealing to golf fans looking for a traditional major layout, with its deep, thick rough, tree-lined fairways and bountiful hazards, but I wonder if its lack of public exposure will keep the tournament lagging behind the other majors. What so many of us love best about The Masters and The Open Championship (and, to some extent, the U.S. Open, although not lately) is the familiarity with the courses, and therefore the anticipation of certain holes, especially on Sunday. Being that it already lacks excitement, stuck at the end of the year, when golf fatigue is setting in and football is ramping up, the PGA could use a permanent venue, so as to build a relationship with the fans and generate some anticipatory excitement as players traverse the course.
Will the Dell Match Play at Austin Country Club be able to continue its wild stretch of success? For years, the Match Play event on the PGA Tour was, at best, a mixed bag. More often than not, the weekend would come and many of the top-tier players would be watching, not playing, after losing early. The golf courses were never that interesting either, and fan interest had started to dwindle. It feels like, however, that when the Tour moved the tournament to Austin Country Club two years ago, all that changed. First and foremost, the venue is perfect for Match Play, with reachable par 5s and a tricky, wind-swept drivable par 4 on the back side, as well as beautiful par 3s and the backdrop of the Austin Hill Country. Secondly, the tournament has had wonderful luck on the weekend, with many of the top players making it to Saturday and Sunday, and the final matches featuring the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. It could be just a coincidence, or a little stretch of good luck for the tournament, but as a proud Texan who believes his state can do little wrong, I’m going to believe it has everything to do with the Lone Star State and the great fans, and fully believe that the 2018 event will again be a star-studded weekend affair.
The Europeans Seek Revenge at the Ryder Cup. How good was the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine? In one day, we were witness to two of the greatest matches in the Ryder Cup’s almost-100 year history, as Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia seemingly shot 50-under between the two of them, and McIlroy and Patrick Reed just about melted the entire venue down with their intensity and back-and-forth haymakers. It was an instant classic, and the most compelling television of the year; plus, the U.S. won, which makes it that much sweeter.
Next year, the Ryder Cup returns to Europe and Le Golf National near Paris, France. It is way too early to speculate teams, but you can bet some of the big name stars from each side will be present – Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Reed, McIlroy, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and others – and the drama will be at an all-time high.
The AT&T Byron Nelson unveils is new digs at Trinity Forest. While most of the country is probably not aware (or really cares) about the new site of the AT&T Byron Nelson, it is certainly a huge deal in the Metroplex, one that will certainly have fans and pros bubbling with excitement (and maybe a bit of cautionary trepidation?) as the tournament draws near. The Crenshaw/Coore-designed course is certainly going to have its unique “wow factor” with the tournament first opens. Visually, it is unlike anything in the state of Texas, looking much more like a course you might find in coastal Georgia or South Carolina (or Great Britain, for that matter) than what you’d expect in Texas. If the wind blows, it could be extremely challenging for the pros (which us avid golfer fans would secretly love), and it will require them to hit shots they don’t normally hit during the Texas swing.
But there are some question marks too, mainly surrounding the course’s location in far south Dallas. How will the tournament handle parking, spectator viewing and hospitality tents? How long will it take fans to get down to the course, and how easy will it be to get in (the club has only one main entry point, along a road that will undoubtedly be crammed with traffic come tournament week)? And will big-name players come to the tournament? Part of the point of building Trinity Forest was to increase the profile of the Nelson by drawing big-name players, and hopefully that gamble pays off in May.