News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s 2018-19 season: Less is more

Those icy winter months spent as a youth in New England dictated a sports schedule over which one had little control. There would be hockey played on frozen ponds in January and February, and even into March, while one’s golf clubs would chill in some faraway corner of the freezer that Dad called the garage. 

But here was the beauty in Mother Nature’s brutal winter wrath: It provided some time to think about, and really miss, golf season. On that first day when the snow cleared, brown turf became visible and the temps climbed into the 40s, you’d dash to the local muni to putt on hardscrabble temporary greens with the heightened fervor usually saved for a last day of school. Pure joy!

The PGA Tour doesn’t really allow for that we-missed-you excitement – or hadn’t in recent seasons, anyway. It pretty much stages events around the calendar, the sentiment being that if some sponsor is ponying up millions for a tournament, then heck, we’ll get some golfers there. (We have Asia holding on Line 2.)

On Tuesday morning, at long last, the 2018-19 PGA Tour schedule was unveiled, slightly pared from its predecessor (46 events, down from 49). The FedEx Cup playoffs have lost a round (four events to three), and the season's final putt now will drop at the Tour Championship on Aug. 25, before that first football rises into the sky. 

Can less be more? That’s the premise.

Details of the schedule have been leaking out for months, so there weren’t any huge surprises. But finally, in big, bold print, we can see some significant moves and changes. The Players returns to March, stop No. 3 in a four-event Florida Swing; in its old May slot moves the PGA Championship, its first May date since 1949 (to be played at New York’s Bethpage Black, no less). 

The schedule has been squeezed in accordion-like fashion, and it should be interesting to see the drumbeat and rhythm of the new sequencing. Some early observations: 

1. OK, so we understand why you wouldn’t jam the PGA Championship, Memorial and U.S. Open (Pebble Beach next year) into a four-week window, but does it really make sense to split up the AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas and the newly named Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth? Why, Dallas and Fort Worth, as Forrest Gump might say, go together like peas and carrots. Instead, a major (PGA) has been wedged between the two. So much for parking the RV in Big D for two weeks.

2. Speaking of everything being bigger in Texas, will anybody actually show up and play the Texas Open? It moves from a somewhat lazy spot in the 2017-18 schedule (post-Masters/pre-Players) into a tough date just in front of the Masters. That date before Augusta worked rather nicely for the Houston Open, but remember, the Golf Club of Houston in Humble also went above-and-beyond on the agronomic side, presenting golfers with firm and fast conditions that helped them tune up for the first major of the year. Granted, Valero will follow another event in Texas (WGC-Match Play in Austin), but it just seems that it could become a lonely island that gets visited less than the one on which Gilligan and Skipper resided. Where’s Houston, you ask? It will change venues (to revamped Memorial Park, in the city limits) and show up as part of the fall portion of the schedule (as will Greenbrier) not this autumn, but in 2019. 

3. A condensed schedule creates some interesting playing windows for some competitors. Doug Ferguson, the longtime golf writer for The Associated Press, raised an interesting point as we look ahead to next season’s schedule and its effect on the Tour’s resident rocket ship, one Tiger Woods. Woods began 2018 at No. 656 in the Official World Golf Ranking; he’s now 69th. A couple more solid finishes, and he’ll soon be back in the world top 50, making him eligible again for the World Golf Championships. If he’s in the top 50 come February, he’d be looking at seven quality events beginning with the Genesis Open at Riviera (where his foundation is beneficiary) in an eight-week window before the Masters, which continues to be his best realistic shot at Major No. 15. You have Genesis, Honda (Palm Beach Gardens, in his backyard), Arnold Palmer (Orlando), Players and Valspar (where he tied for runner-up in his debut) in with WGC events in Mexico and Austin. Genesis, the WGCs and Players would be locks, leaving a reality that he might compete in only one of the three other Florida stops (Honda, Bay Hill, Valspar) that he played this year. Skip Bay Hill, where he has won eight times? Not happening. You’ve got a better shot of convincing a kid to skip Christmas.

4. The Tour will introduce two new events in 2018-19, back to back, in Detroit (Rocket Mortgage Classic) and Minneapolis (3M Open), beginning in late June, just two weeks after a U.S. Open on the West Coast and one week after one of the Tour’s hottest properties, the Travelers (which this year had five of the top 10 from the OWGR). Sure, there will be excitement over two new Tour stops, but the stretch between Opens (U.S. and British) usually presents top players a breather before a hectic late-year run through the Tour Championship. Outside of Rickie Fowler (who has Quicken Loans ties), which players who move the needle at all will show up? There might be some serious arm-twisting from the Tour to keep its two new sponsors happy. 

5. Change can be good, and it should be here. A deserved doff of the cap goes to the Tour just for getting this new scheduling done. With so many moving parts, commissioner Jay Monahan and Co. had lots of challenges. For Monahan, it even had to be personal, as the very event which he helped to build and formerly oversaw as tournament director (Deutsche Bank/Dell) departs the once-a-year schedule. TPC Boston now will rotate with a New York/New Jersey site (Liberty National in ’19) as the playoff opener (Northern Trust). 

The Tour schedule once dragged on forever, with just a slight whimper at the end, but that was fixed with the development of the FedEx Cup and a pot of gold ($10 million) at the end of a long rainbow. That generated interest. And now the Tour has done something to answer a battle it simply could not win once the calendar flipped to September – that is, trying to go head-to-head with college and pro football, sporting life’s 800-pound gorilla. The Players’ returning to March will be good, as long as the Tour can tolerate competitors at its marquee stop being asked incessantly about the Masters around the corner. And the PGA of America has been convincing in its stance that moving its major up to May from August (Glory’s second shot?) can help the organization to get its key messaging for a new golf season out months earlier. 

You know, right after those frozen ponds melt. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62