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Monday Morning Rap: The PGA Tour Has Changed So, So Much Since LIV Emerged

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Good morning, golf fans. Today the PGA Tour's policy board is expected to ratify a notable shift in the relationship between college golf and the PGA Tour—for the first time since in tour history, every college golfer will have a direct path to the PGA Tour should they play well enough. There had, of course, already been an informal relationship between the college game and the professional one, but until now the best college players' quickest path to the PGA Tour would come from getting sponsor's exemptions into events and, hopefully, playing well enough in them to elbow your way into the PGA Tour fold.

The PGA Tour founded its PGA Tour University points program in 2020, but it was rather limited in its scope. Firstly, it was only open to college seniors. And the "grand prize" didn't get you all the way to the Big Tour; the top five finishers would receive Korn Ferry Tour status, with finishers 6-20 receiving various levels of status on PGA Tour Canada and/or PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Monday's announcement will address both limitations—starting now, the top college senior (as determined by an algorithm that incorporates a player's finishes in college, amateur and professional events) will immediately receive PGA Tour status at the conclusion of the NCAA Championships. The winner of the PGA TOUR U standings will begin playing on the PGA Tour directly after the college season ends, at the RBC Canadian Open, and be exempt into all full-field events for the remainder of that FedEx Cup season. You'll recall that the FedEx Cup is going back to a calendar-year schedule in 2023, and it is not yet clear how eligibility will be handled for fall events that do not count toward the FedEx Cup. 

But that's not all. Non-seniors will also have an opportunity to bypass golf's minor leagues (and their last couple years of school, should they choose) and jump straight to the show through the new "PGA Tour U Accelerated" program. All players will accumulate points throughout their college careers (you cannot lose points), with 20 points being the magic number—once a player crosses that threshold, he is eligible for PGA Tour status at the conclusion of that NCAA golf season. For example: if a player crosses the 20 point threshold in October of his sophomore year, he will not receive PGA Tour status until after the completion of NCAAs that spring. 

This will not, however, result in a massive influx of peach fuzz onto the tour: Per tour sources, had this program been in place since 2010, just three underclassmen would have crossed the threshold while still in college: Patrick Cantlay at UCLA, Justin Thomas at Alabama, and Patrick Rodgers at Stanford. There have been other underclassmen that came close and could well have crossed 20 points had they stayed in school longer, which they might have had they known a PGA Tour card was possible. Such players include Viktor Hovland, Jordan Spieth and Sam Burns. 

As with all recent significant changes in the professional game, it is impossible to ignore the impact of LIV Golf on the move. Yes, PGA Tour U started before LIV launched, and we don't doubt that bringing the ever-improving college game closer into the fold was already in the works. But multiple PGA Tour U sources have acknowledged that LIV is absolutely a factor in the move. For the first time in decades, if not ever, the PGA Tour is facing serious competition in the marketplace for young talent. The emergence of LIV has presented the top college players with an option they didn't have 12 months ago, and it's a pretty enticing one: the prospect of guaranteed starts and, most importantly, huge amounts of guaranteed money just for signing a paper. Whereas a few years ago a top college player may have received $1 million or so in endorsement deals and five-ish sponsor invites the day he turns pro, he can now receive far more cash and perhaps two full seasons of guaranteed starts for signing with LIV. It's an offer that proved too tempting to pass up for Eugenio Chacarra, the former Oklahoma State star and world No. 2 amateur who eschewed trying to plot his way through the PGA Tour universe and signed with LIV. The Spaniard won LIV's Bangkok event and took home just over $6 million in earnings in his first season as a pro, in addition to whatever guaranteed money he received for signing. 

Now, by its very limited-field nature, LIV will not be able to offer all the top college players. But they'll continue to eye and recruit the top college talent. This summer, word emerged that they'd made offers to both Alex Fitzpatrick of Wake Forest and Pierceson and Parker Coody of Texas. Fitzpatrick, whose in a unique financial position given the success of his older brother Matt, turned LIV down. The Coody brothers did as well, citing their long-held dreams of playing on the "American" PGA Tour. But Ponte Vedra cannot bank on future college players making that same choice, and Monday's move is an acknowledgement of the arms race that continues to reshape professional golf. It's not the only such acknowledgement we've seen. More has changed in our little world over the past 12 months than in any previous year—so much so that you might not remember all the recent significant shifts. So let's jog the memory. 

The Player Impact Program. Announced in April 2021, the PGA Tour devised the PIP as a way to reward its biggest stars for the attention they bring to the game—not, necessarily, for their scores on the course. The first PIP list was devised by a nebulous algorithm that included criteria such as social media mentions and Q-score, and it paid out $40 million to the top 10 finishers. Five of those players, it should be noted, have since departed for LIV Golf: Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson.

 While tour officials insist that such a program was in the works long before LIV, the program has been widely seen as a response to LIV' offering stars guaranteed money no matter if they shoot 65 or 75. The prize fund for the PIP has been more than doubled, from $40 million to $100 million, and 20 players instead of 10 will receive payouts this year. 

A return to the calendar-year schedule. The wraparound season is no longer, as the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup season will return to a calendar-year cadence in 2023 for the first time since 2012. There'd been talk of condensing the FedEx Cup season long before LIV, but again, the emergence of LIV seemed to hasten a long-overdue look at the PGA Tour's product, which had grown bloated with 45-plus events sprinkled throughout the year. Rory McIlroy, as has become his habit, summed up the tour's stance perfectly when he was recently asked what the PGA Tour's fall season should look like. "Football," he said. "It should be football season."

As part of this reshuffling, the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Finals series will no longer offer PGA Tour cards. The top 30 finishers in the Korn Ferry Tour regular season will receive cards, and only the top 70 PGA Tour players at the end of the FedEx Cup regular season will be exempt into the following year, down from 125. Instead of counting toward the FedEx Cup themselves, fall PGA Tour events will henceforth be used to determine eligibility for the following year's FedEx Cup.

Elevated events with way more money. The FedEx Cup will feature less events, but the idea is that those events will pack a bigger punch. As LIV gathered momentum throughout the summer, and with rumors of more high-profile defections swirling, the now-famous "Group of 20" meeting happened at a Delaware hotel, where the top PGA Tour players banded together (including Tiger Woods, dressed in blue jeans and a flannel) to take advantage of a high-leverage moment. They, along with tour brass, agreed on a new-look schedule that would address one of the biggest shortcomings of the status quo: that the top players do not compete against each other enough. Toward that end, there will be 13 "elevated events" in 2023 that will feature limited fields and $20 million purses: the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the WMPO Phoenix Open, the Genesis Invitational, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Players Championship, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the RBC Heritage, the Wells Fargo Championship, the Memorial Tournament, the Travelers Championship and the three FedEx Cup Playoff events. The top 20 finishers in the PIP standings must participate in those 13 events plus three other events of their choosing. All that, in addition to the four majors. Add it up, and the top players are committing to playing 20 events in 2023, though that minimum-event requirement may be smaller in future years. 

Again, getting the top guys together more often isn't a new idea, but LIV jolted the tour out of its scheduling stasis rapidly. The Tour also sought to shift the money narrative by distributing documents to its players that projected future earnings based on increased earning opportunities moving forward. From a Golf Digest piece I wrote in August: "The calculations are based loosely on a 4 percent year-over-year growth in total comprehensive earnings, with continued added investment in its three bonus programs: the FedEx Cup, the Comcast Business Tour Top 10 and the Player Impact Program. The projection figures are staggering: the tour claims that if Jim Furyk was a rookie in 2022-23 and had the same 28-year career that he had, in which he made $71.5 million in on-course earnings, his total compensation from the tour would exceed $620 million. To sample a few others: Rory McIlroy would be at $373 million (from $65.7 million); Jordan Spieth at $240 million (from $52.5 million); Brandt Snedeker at $180 million; Ryan Palmer at $100 million; Keegan Bradley at $97 million; Jason Gore at $21 million. The tour projects McIlroy would earn $238 million over his first 10 years on tour had his career started today."

Money's going up across the board. As the PGA Tour is quick to point out, plenty of these increases were coming thanks to the new nine-year TV deal with CBS, NBC and ESPN that went into effect this year. But they were certainly jumpstarted by Mr. Norman and co. 

A growing "strategic alliance." The PGA Tour announced its strategic alliance with the then-European Tour now-DP World Tour in 2021, but the two sides leaned a whole lot closer throughout the past 12 months—and, to understand why, just read this Washington Post headline from June: "PGA Tour strengthens ties with European golf to blunt LIV threat." The PGA Tour increased its investment in European Tour Productions from 15 to 40 percent, which paved the way for a significant increase in DP World Tour prize funds, and the top 10 finishers in the DP World Tour's season-long points race will receive full PGA Tour membership if they are not already exempt. There will also continue to be co-sponsored events that are open to members of both tours. 

The PGA Tour's embrace of its European counterparts is surely no coincidence—LIV is though to have approached the DP World Tour in hopes of a partnership, only for the PGA Tour to strengthen its alliance in response. 

Guaranteed compensation. When rumors of a "Saudi Golf League" first began percolating, one of the spicier bullet points we kept hearing about was the concept of guaranteed money, a white whale for professional golfers for decades. The Saudis would begin offering players contracts more similar to team-sports ones, where they receive a base salary simply for signing, with more money possible through incentives. That flouted every old-school axiom about pro golf being sport's ultimate meritocracy, where you ate only what you killed. 

"What these players are doing for guaranteed money," Tiger Woods said at the Open Championship, "what is the incentive to practice? What is the incentive to go out there and earn it in the dirt? You’re just getting paid a lot of money up front and playing a few events and playing 54 holes. They’re playing blaring music and have all these atmospheres that are different.”

Critics of LIV often malign the guaranteed-money aspect, but the both the PGA and the DP World Tour now offer a baseline level of play for their members. Beginning this season, all PGA Tour rookies or players returning from a Korn Ferry Tour season will receive at least $500,000 as part of a new Earnings Assurance Program, which players can take up front. Should they do that, they will only begin receiving tournament checks once their earnings have past $500,000 for the season. If they do not reach $500,000, they keep the difference. The DP World Tour announced a similar program but with a $150,000 baseline, not $500,000. 

A new NFT program. One of Phil Mickelson's chief gripes with the PGA Tour was that the players do not own their own media rights and cannot financially benefit from the highlights they create. Now, the tour has partnered with Autograph on an NFT platform that will allow players to monetize their top moments. This program is a natural progression in an evolving media landscape, but more than a few players will feel Mickelson's prodding helped get this one over the finish line. 

That's the theme here. We'll never know the counter-factual: what changes would or would not have happened had LIV never moved past the rumor stage. What we do know is that LIV has become a very real thing, and that the PGA Tour has become a very different thing in the process. It's one of the reasons that so many tour pros feel, in a somewhat perverse way, thankful for LIV—all the disruption and competition has resulted in tangible changes that, at least for the top players, cannot be seen as anything but positive. 


—Tony Finau's a winning machine, now. After being known for years as a great player who simply does not win trophies, Finau has now won three of his last seven starts and four times in the last 14 months after a dominant showing at the Cadence Bank Houston Open. Finau led by as many as eight during the final round before cruising to a four-shot victory over Tyson Alexander. 

“I’m starting to put together a full package game, which is really exciting for me,” Finau said. “That’s all you can do is work hard and I’ve worked extremely hard on parts of the game that I know I have to and I think it’s starting to show.”

Finau's always had top-level talent, but that talent paired with the deep confidence that comes with closing the deal multiple times—that's a scary combination for his competitors, and he'll be a trendy pick to pick up his first major championship in 2023. 

—Another guy who's been hammered for his inability to close the deal got a W this weekend: Tommy Fleetwood, who beat out DP World Tour killer Ryan Fox to win the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. Tommy Lad fired a five-under 66 to overcome a three shot deficit and win his sixth DPWT title. Fox now has three runner-up finishes to go along with his two DP World Tour titles this year, and the 35-year-old New Zealander is all the way up to world No. 24. 

—This week sorta feels like the end of pro golf in 2022, with both the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour hosting their final events of the calendar year. The PGA Tour heads to St. Simons Island for the RSM Classic, while the DP World Tour hosts its season-ending tour championship in Dubai. The winner of what was for decades called the "Order of Merit" will be determined this week with McIlroy, Fox, Matt Fitzpatrick, Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland holding the top five spots. That event has been crushed by the recent changes in the world rankings, which remove guaranteed minimums for certain tour's flagship events. Per world-ranking oracle Nosferatu on twitter, the DPWT tour championship would've offered its winner 44 points in the old system; now, the winner will get roughly 21. 

—Nelly Korda is back at world No. 1 after winning the Pelican's Womens Championship in Tampa at the same course that will host Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth in The Match on Dec. 10. She grew emotional after the victory, reflecting on a year of uncertainty during which she dealt with a blood clot that forced her to miss significant time.

—A bunch of guys earned some much-needed job security last Monday, when Korn Ferry Tour Q-School finished up. Among them: Allistair Docherty, who wears Barstool Golf gear during competition, earned eight guaranteed KFT starts by finishing T-29 at final stage. 

—Mark Hubbard went full YOLO. By that we mean: he was missing the cut in Houston by a mile and he couldn't hit his driver on the planet. So, with nine holes left in his last event of the calendar year—he's set to have toe surgery today—he grabbed a different driver to play with. Per his brother, Nathan, he expected to be penalized two shots each time he hit it. He was wrong, for he was promptly disqualified. But not after filling his stomach up with the goods: 

—This picture of Tiger and Charlie Woods, standing in front of floodlights before an early tee-time, is an all timer. 

Until next week,