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‘Change is hard,’ but Tour’s stars insist middle class not being left behind

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – At 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, the TPC Sawgrass practice area was nearly empty. There was Scottie Scheffler, dialing in his wedges. There was Justin Thomas, perfecting his stroke. There was Sam Burns, heading out for an early-morning practice round.

For that trio, at least, there was little reason to attend the highly-anticipated players meeting that had just gotten underway about 100 yards away, inside the stately clubhouse. As three of the Tour’s top players, they already knew what was on the agenda. They were integral, after all, in the eventual policymaking.

So was Rory McIlroy, and yet, he was in the room Tuesday morning, with roughly 50 of his peers, even though he’d been at the forefront of this Tour overhaul; even though he co-hosted the stars-only meeting last summer; even though he’d grinded through the machinations and monotony of a seven-hour board meeting last week at Bay Hill, when many of the details of the 2024 Tour schedule were approved. (Five days later, remarkably, he was tied for the lead on the back nine, ultimately finishing tied for second.) But like most everyone else at Sawgrass, he watched the slides and listened to the data points, waiting to see how the message was received by the membership.

Full-field tee times from The Players Championship

At one point, he chimed in with a reminder: This could have been a radically different presentation.

When two dozen of the Tour’s top players gathered last August at the BMW Championship to plot a path forward and respond to LIV Golf’s existential threat, they proposed a dramatically different option.

They talked about creating 14 designated events.

They discussed a field size of 50 to 60 players.

They looked at a retention rate of about 80% among the top 50 on Tour.

“The presentation in Delaware,” McIlroy said, “was very self-serving for the 20 players in that room.”

In short, they would have gotten ludicrously wealthy while largely insulating themselves from relegation.

“I think if we had went down that road,” McIlroy said, “it doesn’t serve the membership anywhere near as well as what this structure does.”

So, over the past six months, Tour officials pushed back. They had a different goal in mind. Historically, the retention rate among the top 50, year-over-year, is about 60% – in other words, about one-third of the players will drop out of that position, leading the way for higher-performing players to emerge and surpass them.

“That was an important element to the changes that we’re making,” commissioner Jay Monahan said. “We wanted to make certain that there was real consequence and there’s real promotion, there’s real relegation.”

And that’s how they tweaked the Star Series and arrived at the 2024 designated model:

They reduced the number of designated events from 14 to eight.

They increased the limited field size to 70 to 80 players.

They lowered the retention rate to that magic number of about 60%.

Just as important, perhaps, is what the rest of the schedule looks like: 29 other full-field events, offering similar purses as now, with mini-swings throughout the year to promote the in-form players.

“What was presented in Delaware was wayyyy more of a closed shop,” McIlroy said. “The top players have made a ton of concessions to make sure that there’s a balance here.”

Added Monahan: “There was an openness to adapt it to the broader membership.”

That still won’t appease everyone. One of the Tour’s most vocal critics has been James Hahn, a former board member, who ripped the star-driven model in an interview with Golfweek and in repeated social-media posts. But he declined an on-camera interview request Monday, then did not show up for the meeting the next day.

“You say all this s--t and you’re not even in the meeting?” McIlroy said. “Like, come on – if you want to get informed and be a part of the process … the fact that he wasn’t even in the room was, like, a slap in the face to the Tour and everyone who’s on the Tour.”

Hahn wasn’t the only player to skip, of course. There wasn’t a huge turnout, not just because of the 7:30 a.m. start time, but also because the plan had already been ratified. It’s happening, regardless of how many players complained or criticized or concocted a better model. So they best get informed and hop aboard – or find another suitor.

“There’s not going to be any model that makes everybody happy. That’s just a stone-cold fact,” Justin Thomas said. “But at the end of the day, when every single one of us signed up to play golf, you knew that the better you played, the better tournaments you were going to get into, and the worse you played, you may not even have a job anymore or you may be on a developmental tour. None of that is changing.

“It’s a mindset thing with some people that are upset about it, like: OK, do I want to look at that table or look at that tournament and say, ‘That’s not fair, I don’t get to play in that.’ Or do I want to say, ‘I want to be a part of that table,’ or ‘I want to be a part of that tournament.’”

One looming question remains, according to those who attended the meeting, and it’ll take a few years to realize. How the FedExCup points are allocated in designated and non-designated events – a fifth-place showing, for instance, is worth either 300 or 100 points – will determine whether the plan achieves the desired amount of churn at the top level. Monahan said the Tour has run a “dizzying number of models” to get it right, but he also acknowledged: “Will this model be perfect right out of the gate? Perhaps not. But as we’ve done throughout our history and using the FedExCup as a prime example, we will listen, we will learn and we will adapt each year with the changing needs of our players, partners and fans.”

And Monahan is right: The FedExCup has undergone numerous iterations since it was first introduced in 2007. But those tweaks were almost all made to more accurately recognize the season’s top performer. These models and projections and formulas – if not perfectly dialed-in – could have career-altering consequences.

“They’ve got some great technology,” McIlroy said. “I have no reason to not trust it; I’ll trust that until there’s a reason not to. This is what it’s giving us, and so you sort of have to go with it and see.

“We don’t know if this is the perfect system. Are there going to continue to be tweaks to make it better? Of course. But at this point we have to go with it, because what’s the alternate? The status quo and more guys leave, and the PGA Tour is absolutely f---ed. That’s not the answer.”

So the answer, for now, is this: A two-tiered system that seeks to reward the top-50 players for past performance while also providing an avenue for the hottest players of the moment to change their career trajectories.

Those on the fringes are understandably anxious about what lies ahead – their prospects, their potential. And a 90-minute question-and-answer session won’t allay all of their concerns about the Tour’s new era.

“Change is hard,” McIlroy said. “People who have historically gotten into these [designated] events, they’re seeing that their place in those fields is in jeopardy. But I would argue that there’s one way to solve that – that you can shoot the scores and qualify for it.

“I hate to be the guy who says, ‘play better,’ but it’s play better. It’s shoot the scores. It’s still a meritocracy. It’s not a closed shop.”

Does the Tour’s middle class grasp that reality?

“I think they understand it more after this meeting,” he said.