New era of PGA Tour begins at 2023 Phoenix Open, the most ideal ‘designated event’ to build upon

When the PGA Tour announced last summer that it would introduce what are now called “designated events,” this week’s Phoenix Open is exactly what it had in mind.

Among the top 24 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings who are also eligible for the event, 23 will be in attendance this week at TPC Scottsdale. Only Will Zalatoris will skip the first full-field designated event of this new era of PGA Tour golf.

Name an elite, big-name, massively talented golfer, and they’re probably going to be in Scottsdale this week for the People’s Major. Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, who have won seven of their last 14 combined events, will both be in attendance. So will Patrick Cantlay (who nearly won last year), Scottie Scheffler (who did win last year), Max Homa (who won in his last start at Torrey Pines) and Collin Morikawa (who has nearly won in each of his last three starts).

Throw in Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Matt Fitzpatrick, Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau, Viktor Hovland and a couple hundred thousand (lubed up) patrons over the next four days, and we have ourselves a golf tournament.

This is not necessarily unusual for the Phoenix Open in the same way it might be later in the year for something like the RBC Heritage, also a designated event but one that rarely experiences great fields. The trajectory of Phoenix’s field has been pointing upward for a long time now, but it does mark the genesis of a new-look PGA Tour, one that should be a far more entertaining product than in recent years.

One of a hundred reasons the PGA Tour has faced down the $800 million LIV Golf machine over the last year is because the PGA Tour had spread itself too thin across the entire golf landscape. Imagine if the NFL played 40 weeks or the NBA had games across 11 months. Would any of that be a good idea? Would it create the scarcity that often makes various sports thrive?

No, it would not.

Because the goal of the PGA Tour’s leadership is to create as many playing opportunities as possible with the biggest purses it can attain — and because to the Tour, a member-based league, does not have a hierarchy of players (McIlroy and Peter Malnati both count the same in the Tour’s eyes) — it leads to 45-plus events on the calendar.

Without an audience big enough to sustain this as a premium product across 90% of the year, viewership fatigue and an overall illiteracy about what matters on the PGA Tour crept in over the years.

Now, because a group of 20-plus players (including Rahm) got together at the BMW Championship last summer and decided they needed to all play the same events in the same weeks, the Tour has an unspoken, unwritten differentiation of its product. Frankly, it now runs two different leagues.

“I think, for the most part, [the PGA Tour’s designated event plan has] happened the way I envisioned it was going to happen,” said Rahm on Tuesday in Phoenix.

There is the league that played last week when Justin Rose outflanked Denny McCarthy, Keith Mitchell, Brendon Todd and Malnati at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and there is the league that is playing this week with Rory, Rahm, J.T., Cantlay and Finau. They are one but not the same.

Interestingly, in the upcoming “Full Swing” documentary on Netflix, which provides tremendous detail to golf in 2022, McIlroy insinuated that top players had not necessarily agreed that these elevated events be mandatory. At least, there was some frustration over that word being used. When they were described as such by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in a press conference after the aforementioned players-only meeting, golfers were not exactly thrilled. McIlroy played peacemaker and told players, essentially, if I can play in all of these then you absolutely can, too.

So, here we are on the precipice of the second of 13 elevated events in 2023 but the first of 10 total that will include a full field of nearly every currently great golfer in the world.

Sure, Cameron Smith (No. 4 in OWGR), Joaquin Niemann (No. 23) and Dustin Johnson (No. 50) won’t be there either, but LIV golfers only constitute 7.5% of the OWGR top 40 (LIV events not included) and 7.5% of the Data Golf top 40 (LIV events included).

The bottom line: This is an event with a nearly major championship-like quality to it.

It took a long time and a lot of money (from multiple organizations!) to get here. LIV spent nearly $900 million in 2022 on players and tournaments. The PGA Tour padded its purses by tens of millions for 2023.

In the end, though, this is what the professional game should look like. The best players playing the same events every year, even if it leaves the rest of the tournaments with weaker fields and lowered viewership.

The way forward is consolidation, and though the PGA Tour hasn’t technically consolidated, it has implicitly done so. We’ll see some of the fruit of that labor this week in Phoenix. An alcohol-soaked fruit, to be sure, perhaps a cab or a merlot.

Whatever it is, however it plays out, whichever direction this goes, it appears at the outset that the undefined future is clearer than it has been in quite a while for the PGA Tour. And for everyone involved, it’s a future that is likely to taste quite good.

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