News & Opinion

Fall season marks PGA Tour’s ‘Land of Opportunity’

Up-and-comers can make quick start, if they play it right

The PGA Tour’s fall schedule is The Land of Opportunity.

Given the dearth of the world’s top players, you might have a less flattering nickname in mind, such as B Flight, Korn Ferry Tour Graduate School or The Masked Golfers.

When the PGA Tour ads used to claim “These guys are good,” they meant all of these guys. And they are good. They prove it every week.

We want two things, really, as golf viewers. One is an exciting, dramatic finish. Such as the way Kevin Na rolled in a long par-saving putt on the 17th hole two weeks ago after Patrick Cantlay rinsed a shot in the water in Las Vegas; matched Cantlay’s birdie on the first playoff hole; and won on the second extra hole when Cantlay three-putted. That was dramatic.

The second thing we want is to watch players whom we like, or at least know. Na and Cantlay might not fill the bill for every golf fan in that department. Neither did winners of the other Fall Series events: Joaquin Niemann, Sebastian Munoz, Cameron Champ and Lanto Griffin.

2019 Houston Open
Lanto Griffin (left), winner of the recent Houston Open, shows off his hardware for Jim Crane, who owns baseball’s Astros and rescued Houston’s longtime PGA Tour event.

Golf’s biggest names don’t play every week, and in the fall, they are sighted only slightly more often than the rare ruby-breasted pig-nosed flying aardvark. I was a recent guest on the “Backspin” radio show in Phoenix and was asked what the Houston Open could do to attract a better field and return to its former glory, such as it was, when Shell was the sponsor, with a preferable date the week before the Masters.

That’s a multimillion-dollar question. Money isn’t a lure for golf’s top stars. They’ve got more of it than they could reasonably spend in six lifetimes. Doubling the tournament’s purse wouldn’t so much as make Brooks Koepka blink. Triple it and Rory McIlroy probably would stifle a yawn.

Tour players typically care only about the date and the golf course. If the date works for them, they might play a course they don’t love (see Bay Hill). If they like the course or have a history of good results at a place, they might overlook a date or place that’s inconvenient. Jordan Spieth, for instance, has such a good track record in Hartford, where the Travelers Championship’s date on the week after the U.S. Open on the opposite coast from Pebble Beach didn’t deter him from playing – although he surprisingly missed the cut.

My advice to the fall events is to think outside the bun.

The previous Houston Open attracted some top dogs – notably Phil Mickelson – by trying to match Augusta National’s firm and fast greens the week before the Masters. Some players go to the Zurich Classic just for a week of food in New Orleans and, now, because they enjoy the camaraderie of the two-man-team format.

The Byron Nelson Championship lived off the chance to have a relationship with Nelson, who died in 2006. Some players were under order from their wives or significant others to play there just for a week at the Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, the host site. Nelson is gone, and so is that Four Seasons perk since the tournament moved to a new course across town.

The Charles Schwab Challenge, formerly known as the Colonial Invitational, came up with an original idea this year as a lure. The winner got a restored muscle car, a shiny blue 1973 Dodge Challenger, in addition to the ho-hum $1.314 million first prize. Na, who won that week, too, fulfilled a promise he’d made earlier in the week to his caddie, Kenny Harms, a car guy, and dished off the keys to Harms upon winning.

The clubhouse leader for way-out perks remains the European Tour’s KLM Open in Amsterdam. Andy Sullivan won a 62-minute ride into space from XCOR Aerospace for making an ace at the 15th hole in 2014. Now that’s an attention-getting perk.

Back to the Houston Open’s challenge: I don’t have an answer to what can land a big name for next year’s field. Since Houston Astros owner Jim Crane is helping fund the event, maybe the five highest-ranked players in the field could take batting practice with the Astros early in the week. I like the Schwab’s idea of awarding a unique custom car – maybe a rare luxury car such as a Rolls-Royce or maybe the Dallas-based Gas Monkey Garage from the TV show “Fast N’ Loud” could build out a car of the winner’s choice.

Here’s the thing about a tournament’s strength of field: It’s overrated. All a tournament really needs to pique the public’s interest is one guy, the right one guy. Tiger Woods, for instance, would spike any tourney’s ticket sales, but he seems more like a hermit and less like a golfer than ever before. Mickelson is another high-profile player who can save a tournament. After them, the players who might really make a difference these days are on a short list that includes McIlroy, Spieth, Rickie Fowler (come on, he’s in every other commercial during a golf telecast), Jason Day and possibly Dustin Johnson.

The Safeway Open made what turned out to be a genius move by giving former NFL quarterback-turned-football analyst Tony Romo an exemption. When the popular Romo shot a good first round, he got national attention for the event as speculation arose about whether he could make the cut. During Friday’s second-round play, I heard sports-talk radio guys here in Pittsburgh giving live updates about his progress. Romo didn’t make the cut. Though some argued that he didn’t belong in a PGA Tour event, he saved the day for Safeway. From a sponsor’s standpoint, that proved why he did belong. Romo is a unicorn in that regard. I can’t name any other celebrities who could make a pass at being competitive on the PGA Tour.

Look, there’s no sure-fire way to persuade top golfers to compete during this window of downtime between the FedEx Cup blowout and the upcoming World Golf Championships event in China. The big dogs don’t have to go to China, but there are so many world-ranking points up for grabs there that it’s difficult to pass up.

If I were a midlevel PGA Tour player, or one who just played his way up from the Korn Ferry Tour, I wouldn’t miss any fall event for which I was eligible. Five weeks into the fall season, I would have played all five. A number of players have done just that, including Lanto Griffin, who won the Houston Open on Sunday.

If the big boys aren’t playing, it’s that much easier for me to win or have a high finish and cement my playing privileges. It’s a great way to get in front of the game’s superstars on the money/points list, at least temporarily.

I get it if you aren’t enthused to watch me, Joe No-Name, build my legacy of top-25 finishes. I’m not out for fame; I’m out to cash some checks and earn a ticket to next year’s FedEx Cup affair, because this gig sure beats working.

There’s no better time to do that than the fall season. This is my Land of Opportunity.