by Jeff Skinner
Traditionally the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua has signaled the beginning of a fresh new season on the PGA Tour. The previous year’s champions would kick off the New Year with a working vacation in paradise and all of us back on the mainland would be green with envy as we shoveled snow and they got sunburned.
Now, with the move to a wrap-around schedule the Tournament of Champions is now the eighth tournament of the PGA Tour season. And with this comes not only a chronological change for the tour but a cultural one also.
A number of different factors have contributed to this change that has caused the “start” of the season to become unsettled and vague.
The European Tour was the first to go to a wrap-around schedule and the PGA Tour under pressure from sponsors of the old Fall Series events and looking to maximize their exposure soon followed. Golf seasons that flow from one year to another with very little down time appear to be the norm now as the tours try to keep their cash flow constant from month to month.
With the evolution of golf as a “world-wide game” professional golfers are no longer restricted to playing on a single tour or continent. With multiple tours playing all over the world a motivated golfer with a well packed bag and a private jet could play every week of the year. In addition to the PGA Tour the multiple tours in Europe, Asia, South Africa, Australia and even China allow golfers to circle the globe chasing the little white ball. And of course there are the “appearance fees” that other tours (not the PGA Tour) will pay big name players to spend a few days in Turkey, Qatar and god knows where else.
There was a time on the PGA Tour when professional golfers weren’t millionaires and couldn’t afford their own planes. But when Arnold Palmer caught the fancy of golf fans and television coverage brought more dollars to the players it marked a huge shift in the game.
Now players aren’t just independent contractors they are independently wealthy, significantly wealthy. No longer do players have to play each week to pay the bills. A good season or two on the PGA Tour and players earn enough to live comfortably for decades. And with that wealth comes a freedom. A freedom to set their own schedule and from what a few top players have said recently it looks like they will be playing a bit less.
The poster boy for playing a reduced schedule last season was Steve Stricker. The likable Stricker likes being at home with his family and hunting enough to reduce his schedule to a part time player. He played in thirteen PGA Tour events in ’13 and still finished seventh on the money list. Tiger Woods has made a career out of “less is more.” The last time Tiger played in 20 PGA Tour events was 2005. He averages about 16 in the last five years but peaked at 19 in 2012 while trying to come back from an injury and refine his swing.
Now Masters Champion Adam Scott has said he’ll shut it down for two months after the Sony Open. Scott played plenty of golf last season as he took a victory lap with four events in Australia after the PGA Tour season’s FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Matt Kuchar tells us he’s not leaving Hawaii for six weeks after today to hang out and do the islands “the Hawaiian way.” And that comes from one of the tour stalwarts who played in 23 official events and four “unofficial” ones also.
And maybe the loudest voice in the “less play” conversation is that of the Champion Golfer of the Year, Phil Mickelson. Phil says that he is reducing his 2014 schedule to better prepare himself for the majors and to avoid a burn out in the second half. He cites the new schedule and the growth of the FedEx Cup Playoffs as factors in his decision to re-evaluate his schedule. “I had some great highs and I had some lows. I don’t play my highest level every single week. I have kind of ups and downs, and I’m a very emotional player,” said Mickelson, “I think that I’m going to have to factor that into some of my scheduling and maybe cut out 25 percent of my events in an effort to play at a high level when I do play because I know that I’m not able to do it 25 weeks a year. Maybe I can do it 18 or 20, though.” Phil has averaged 21 PGA events over the past four seasons in addition to trips to China, Asia and Europe to play so he may be looking at a PGA Tour count of 15 events if he wants to reduce it by 25 percent.
Playing less isn’t new to top players in the game. Jack “The Greatest of All Time” Nicklaus played in 15 tour events in ’86 when he won his last major. And in 1980 when Jack was 40, again 15 was the magic number.
The growth of the game and specifically, the riches in the game has enabled the players to live a comfortable life and pick a schedule that fits their individual lifestyle.
The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs has succeeded in getting the big names on the course after the PGA Championship but there may be an unintended consequence: those same players playing less early in the season. Listening to Phil, Adam and Kuch it looks like we may just have to live with that.