Column: PGA Tour fields could go from Who’s Who to Who’s That?


HONOLULU (TBEN) — Activity at the practice range in Waialae used to be predictable. Instead of standing behind players to watch their swings, the most common move was to stand to the side and unobtrusively look at the front of the golf bag to see whose name was on it.

That was the case this year at the Sony Open, even though it was the 11th tournament of the PGA Tour’s final wraparound season.

It was the first time the tour moved from an elevated event (Sentry Tournament of Champions with a $15 million purse) to a regular event (Sony Open for $7.9 million).

And it could provide a first glimpse into the future of the PGA Tour.

While 19 of the 38 players who finished in Kapalua made the 22-minute flight from Maui to Honolulu, none made the top 10 in the world rankings. The four top 20 players — Jordan Spieth, Tom Kim, Billy Horschel and Sungjae Im — all missed the cut.

This is what the PGA Tour could look like in the future. The answer to the threat of Saudi-funded LIV Golf is a schedule that brings together the biggest names as often as possible. There’s no telling what that will do to the rest of the tournaments on the schedule.

There is still a lot of work to be done before 2024. Along with when tournaments will be played – this could be a big shake up – the key decisions will be the size of the field, whether to cut 36 holes and access for the lesser names who play great golf .

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The Hawaii swing was an easy target for the worst-case scenario.

One tournament had only PGA Tour winners from the previous year and everyone who had made it to the Tour Championship in East Lake. The field consisted of 39 players, with two Irish golfers (Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry) hitting over. Three of the top four players going into finals day had won three of the last five majors.

The other had 144 players – rounds didn’t end on Thursday and Friday due to darkness – and several of them have yet to make their mark on the game.

It was a “Who’s Who” in Kapalua and a “Who’s That?” at Waialae.

For those who watched Saturday night’s short time between NFL wild card games, they would have seen a leaderboard where nine of the top 15 had never won on the PGA Tour, and only two of that group (Chris Kirk and Si Woo Kim) had won more than once.

Oddly enough, both tournaments were riveting and featured comebacks.

Jon Rahm won at Kapalua despite trailing two-time main champion Collin Morikawa by six shots from the back nine, with a 63 on the final day.

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Kim made up his three-shot deficit in three holes (missing a 4-foot birdie on the par-3 fourth) against Hayden Buckley, and then the final 30 minutes were good theatre. Buckley made a 15-yard birdie putt on the 16th to take the lead. Kim heard the cheer from 200 yards away, thought it was a birdie or bust, and chipped in from 10 yards from behind the 17th green to tie him up.

On the par-5 18th, Kim flushed a 5-iron from the fairway bunker that ran to the front of the green for a two-putt birdie from 12 yards for a 64. Buckley couldn’t get up and down from a tough spot short and right of the green.

Kim was 21 when he won The Players Championship in 2017 against the strongest, deepest field in golf. This one didn’t feel easier.

“It doesn’t matter what field it’s in, it’s so hard to win the PGA Tour,” Kim said after clinching his fourth tour title. “Still has a lot of good players, big name or not. Still, all the players here are very good.”

The American Express is in the California desert this week and no one will be talking about the perception of a two tour system as it has five of the top seven players in the world. That includes Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Cantlay, both of whom will have the chance to reach No. 1 in the world.

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For those players who don’t get a little extra under the table – the unofficial term is ‘cocktail party’, not appearance money – some habits are persistent. The desert has always been a good place to start the year. Because of the weather, golf usually comes so close to an indoor sport.

Torrey Pines will have some stars, as will Pebble Beach, until the PGA Tour wraps up the West Coast Swing with elevated events in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

At the Sony Open, Matt Kuchar was as guilty as anyone not knowing some of the players, even after playing against fields three times in the fall when the stars were out.

“I feel like I’ll at least get through the west coast before I feel especially comfortable with getting the names right and the right faces,” Kuchar said. “It’s exciting to see the new crop come on every year and try to figure out which of the guys will stay here and which of the guys might not stay at the top of the tour.”


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