The season-ending Tour Championship usually signals season’s end only for the PGA Tour’s elite, those whose obligations post-East Lake are limited to hit-and-giggle cash grabs and comme il faut appearances on home circuits overseas. The finale hasn’t actually been a finale for everyone since 2006, when Atlanta concluded matters in November.
For the next half-dozen years, the Tour Championship was in September, followed by a handful of events held in the fall that generated less discussion than a fumbled pass in that week’s least-watched NFL game. Ten years ago, the fall stops were recast as the opening stretch of a wraparound schedule. As of this week, those tournaments become a hybrid of their prior iterations: a continuation of the season that was and a determinant of the one to come. Seven events between now and Thanksgiving will dictate the status of most Tour members for ’24, when a calendar-year schedule returns.
Through all of the changes to the fall line-up, one thing remained constant: the stars mostly stayed home, effectively rendering the autumn a Head Start program for journeymen, a chance to reap cash and FedEx Cup points before the best players returned in the new year. Now, this formerly nebulous period finally has something meaningful at stake. It’s still largely a playground for the proletariat on Tour, but the head start has morphed into a life alert system, its competitors not so much getting ahead as catching up.
Like everything else on Tour these days, the new dispensation for the fall is designed to satisfy players who seldom darken locker rooms after Labor Day. The elite wearied of showing up in January to find themselves distantly trailing tradesmen in the FedEx Cup points race. In this new system, their security is cemented. The top 50 who qualified for the penultimate playoff event, the BMW Championship, earned unfettered access to every lucrative tournament next season. Fall events can offer them only prize money and competitive sharpness. The series now underway is for those who must work to improve their lot for ‘24, while ensuring they can’t adversely impact the Tour’s one percent who have better things to do. It’s a wonder Bernie Sanders isn’t marching on Ponte Vedra to protest the rigging of the system against the majority of hard-working millionaires.
Despite the nakedly political considerations and concessions that shaped this new-look fall schedule, it’s an improvement on the status quo. It will help end a perception that has taken root since ’06 — that every tournament after the Tour Championship simply dilutes the product, and only benefits rank-and-file guys who don’t sell tickets and executives bonused on creating those playing opportunities. The McIlroys and Rahms of the world are not incentivized to visit Jackson, Mississippi, or St. Simons Island, Georgia, but there are plenty of others in the Tour’s orbit who are.
This plump Tour schedule wasn’t merely about creating playing opportunities. It was a subtle power flex for those in charge. Players must request a waiver to compete in any tournament held opposite a PGA Tour event, and a limited number of such passes could be granted each season. As long as almost every week featured a Tour event, Ponte Vedra could exercise a degree of control over where and when its most important assets — the top players — could be used to the benefit of some other circuit. That’s why waivers became the inflection point for the LIV Golf litigation.
The device to end that legal action with the Saudis — the vaguely defined Framework Agreement — means the future of the fall is arguably even more fluid. If negotiations deliver some form of team competition under the Tour umbrella, then it’s most likely to reach a denouement in the fall so as not to diminish the FedEx Cup playoffs. The fourth quarter is also the most fertile window for the Tour’s strategic alliance with the DP World Tour to bear fruit, with elite players encouraged to compete in Europe. After all, they won’t want to sit home for months. The question is where it is most advantageous to have them work.
What’s clear even now is where they won’t be working much. The PGA Tour’s regular domestic fall schedule is unlikely to ever again see a healthy subscription of the game’s biggest stars compete. They’re gone, and they’re not coming back.