News & Opinion

In its bid to move needle, PGA Tour might get pricked

Tiger Woods at 2020 Masters
Injured Tiger Woods hasn’t hit a shot this year, and he almost certainly won’t, but that doesn’t knock him out of a multimillion-dollar payday in the PGA Tour’s new Player Impact Program.

Player Impact Program has nothing to do with play, so don’t be surprised when injured fan favorite Tiger Woods wins top prize

It’s a fine line between entertainment and competition.

The PGA Tour reminded us of that fact a couple of weeks ago with the revelation of its new Player Impact Program. A $40 million pool has been established to reward players who positively move the needle, according to a report by Golfweek that other media outlets since have confirmed.

Such actions are not new. I recall the 1992 Kemper Open, which was played in Potomac, Md., near the nation’s capital, and gave a sponsor exemption to Washington quarterback Mark Rypien. He was a two-time Super Bowl champion and the most valuable player of that year’s Super Bowl XXVI. The usual hubbub about how golfers needed to make a living failed to outweigh this reality: Rypien was the biggest needle mover at the tournament, by a factor of 10. It didn’t matter that he shot 80-91 and missed the cut by 28 shots. He brought attention to a tournament that fell three weeks before the U.S. Open, sandwiched between Colonial and the Memorial. Rypien put butts in the seats, as they say.

Look at this week’s announcement that Rickie Fowler received an exemption from the PGA of America into next month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. The PGA said it was based on his performances, playing record and world ranking.

Fowler ranks No. 136 in FedEx Cup points, 131st in official money and 111th in the Official World Golf Ranking. The PGA’s reasoning might sound nice, but it’s disingenuous. If the PGA simply would have said the obvious, that golf fans want to see Fowler, kids dress like him on the golf course and that he always makes himself available to spectators and media alike, that would have been more honest.

There are so many more examples, but let’s look at the new Player Impact Program for what it is: a way for the PGA Tour to offer appearance fees, but under its control.

For years, tournament sponsors such as Zurich, Rocket Mortgage and RBC have signed players to endorsement contracts with an understanding that they will play in the events that the companies sponsor.  

Though the deals might not technically be for appearance fees, the Tour either looks the other way or tacitly approves the actions.

So instead of allowing appearance fees, as the European Tour has done for decades, the PGA Tour wants to be the broker. This way, officials in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., can control the system. With the Tour’s newfound riches from a new television contract, which reportedly is worth $700 million for nine years and goes into effect next year, they have more than enough money.

The Player Impact Program, which was approved in March 2020, will distribute $40 million to 10 players at the end of the year, with the top player to receive $8 million.

The criteria were not provided by the PGA Tour, but Golfweek’s Eamon Lynch, who broke the news, outlined six factors: 

1. Position on the season-ending FedEx Cup points list.

2. Popularity in Google search.

3. Nielsen Brand Exposure rating, which places a value on the exposure a player delivers to sponsors through the minutes they are featured on broadcasts.

4. Q Rating, which measures the familiarity and appeal of a player’s brand.

5. MVP Index rating, which calibrates the value of the engagement a player drives across social and digital channels.

6. Meltwater Mentions, or the frequency with which a player generates coverage across a range of media platforms.

According to a PGA Tour spokesman, the position on the FedEx Cup points list is not a criterion used in determining the PIP’s top 10.

Using the outlined criteria, Tiger Woods would rank No. 1 and be in line for the $8 million top prize, various reports have determined. However, Woods, who shattered his right leg in a Feb. 23 rollover crash and hasn’t competed this year, likely will miss all of 2021 and faces an uncertain 2022.

The PGA Tour said in an email to Morning Read that it might waive or modify eligibility requirements based on extraordinary circumstances such as injury, serious personal emergency or other events.

So, Woods, who played in three events in the fall as part of the 2020-21 wraparound season – U.S. Open (missed cut), Zozo Championship (T-72) and the Masters (T-38) – conceivably could be on top of the initial Player Impact Program ranking and receive the $8 million bonus without having played a stroke all year.

Was that what the Tour had in mind when it put this program in place? Probably not, but again: It is not performance-based criteria but rather needle-moving metrics, and there is no doubt about who moves the needle the most on the PGA Tour, on or off the course.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.