News & Opinion

PGA Tour needs to fix its Will Zalatoris problem

Will Zalatoris at 2021 WGC Workday Championship
Will Zalatoris keeps racking up top finishes and big paychecks on the PGA Tour, but it comes with no FedEx Cup points because of his special temporary status and no path into the playoffs. Commissioner Jay Monahan can fix that problem, Mike Purkey contends.

Masters runner-up ranks No. 28 in world after a string of top finishes yet finds himself in a sort of PGA Tour purgatory

A crime is being perpetrated against the No. 28 player in the world. The PGA Tour is elbowing Will Zalatoris out of some of its most lucrative events because of an arcane rule that should be changed today. Lawyers call it restraint of trade, which is to interfere with free-market competition.

Sport’s ultimate meritocracy is bound up and hamstrung by needless bureaucracy. Zalatoris is being penalized by the PGA Tour for his success because of pandemic-related decisions that were designed to protect the least-successful players on Tour. Professional golfers are supposed to be rewarded for performance, not impeded by it.

Coming out of the RBC Heritage, Zalatoris should be credited with 1,055 FedEx Cup points, which would place him tied for 13th in the standings. But he hasn’t. Zalatoris has won more than $3 million in 16 events and, thankfully, there’s no Tour rule that can prevent him from depositing those checks.

He earned a spot on Tour last year, but commissioner Jay Monahan decided that because of the pandemic-interrupted season, no one on the PGA Tour would lose his card in 2019-20. But more importantly, none of the top 25 players on the Korn Ferry Tour would graduate to the PGA Tour.

Before the U.S. Open, which was moved from June to September, the USGA canceled local and sectional qualifying, instead filling its field through a variety of rankings. Included were the top 10 players on the Korn Ferry Tour. At the time, Zalatoris was in the top five.

He went on to finish sixth at Winged Foot, which under the new PGA Tour schedule is in the 2020-21 season. The next week, he tied for eighth at the Corales Puntacana, and two weeks later, he was T-5 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. Two weeks ago, he was runner-up at the Masters. In total, Zalatoris has played in 16 Tour events, making the cut in 15, and all told, six top-10s.

Most of those events were from sponsor exemptions, with the notable exceptions of the Players Championship, WGC Workday Championship, WGC Match Play and the Masters. He gained entry into those elite championships because of his world ranking, which is now at No. 28 and gets him into the year’s three remaining majors.

But Zalatoris is not eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs, despite his impressive record, because he’s only a special temporary member of the PGA Tour. He achieved this status by accumulating the equivalent of enough FedEx Cup points to exceed the number of the 150th player on the list from 2018-19. His reward is unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the season. The only path for Zalatoris to gain membership this season is to win a PGA Tour event or go back to the Korn Ferry Tour and earn automatic promotion by winning two more times this year.

What’s the job of the commissioner besides raking in millions of dollars in revenue for the Tour? He adjudicates penalties, levies fines, deals out suspensions. However, the job description also should include setting right a wrong, correcting an injustice.

Monahan easily could make this happen. He doesn’t need the Player Advisory Council. He could rule unilaterally on this matter, and virtually no one would object. If you were to poll the membership of the PGA and Korn Ferry tours, the bet here is that the players would vote in a landslide to award Zalatoris his PGA Tour membership. It’s not as if he’s sneaking in the back door. At present, he’s one of the best players in the world by any metric.

The LPGA Tour faced a similar issue last August. Sophia Popov, at the time ranked No. 304 in the world, shocked women’s golf by winning the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon. Normally, the Women’s Open champion would receive a five-year exemption on the LPGA Tour. Instead, Popov received a two-year exemption because she held status only on the developmental Symetra Tour. And winning, even a major championship, didn’t automatically give her LPGA Tour membership.

Mike Whan, the LPGA’s commissioner, stood by the tour’s rules and didn’t make an exception for Popov. Except that he did bend the rules for Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko so that they could join the LPGA without meeting the minimum age requirement.

In February, the LPGA Tour changed the rules so that non-members will get the five-year exemption for a major victory and the opportunity to play in the following week’s event, something else Popov wasn’t allowed to do last year. Non-member winners also will accumulate CME Globe points and official money.

To his everlasting credit, Zalatoris hasn’t complained one whit. Just the opposite: He’s thrilled to be in this spot. It’s said that winning takes care of everything, and Zalatoris could solve this quandary with a PGA Tour victory. But it needn’t come to that.

When Tour officials were wrestling with what to do about the season when it became clear that COVID-19 was about to become a scourge last year, it was written on an easel pad, “What would reasonable people expect us to do?” Monahan said at that point, the answer was clear.

In the case of Zalatoris, the same question could be asked, and the answer is just as obvious: Award him PGA Tour membership, and do it immediately. It’s not a gift. He’s earned it.                                                                             

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