Does Early Season Play Foreshadow Augusta National Success?
As the PGA Tour's Sentry Tournament of Champions kicks off the new year, assessing the value of West Coast, Florida and Texas play based on 2022's Masters Top 10.
California. Florida. Bermuda. Rye. Bent. Poa. Stadium golf. Golden Age classics. Wind. Rain. Clear skies. Cold desert mornings.
The magnificent march to Magnolia Lane has arrived!
Based on Golf Channel’s Tuesday night programming choices you might not have known that the vital portion of the PGA Tour season was about to set sail. Instead of a classic TOC or even a 2022 replay—I guess we’re trying to forget that LIVster Cam Smith won?—the channel re-aired December’s QBE and PNC events for the jillionth time. And to whip up excitement for Kapalua week, Wednesday includes showings of the historic Popstroke Championship and 2021’s St Andrews doc. Poor Tin Cup.
Meanwhile, those who care about the sport know the serious season arrives Thursday. Every year from January to April we get to watch players face the gamut of conditions in what turns out to be the ultimate pre-Augusta boot camp. And when the PGA Tour’s season kicks off Thursday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, players have just over 90 days to find that extra something in hopes of winning the most coveted title in men’s golf.
Consider the fairway turfgrass variety offered on the West Coast, Florida and early Texas Swings: bermuda (Kapalua, Waialae, PGA National), bermuda overseeded with rye (PGA West, TPC Scottsdale, Austin CC, TPC Sawgrass, Innisbrook, TPC San Antonio), kikuyu (Riviera), kikuyu overseeded with rye (Torrey Pines) and on the Monterey Peninsula, a dreamy hodgepodge of poa annua and rye (Pebble Beach, Spyglass), and even bent and fescue (MPCC).
Then we have the speedy and varied putting surfaces to toughen up the nerves for Augusta’s frightening greens: poa annua, bent, poa and bent combined, bermuda overseeded with poa trivialis, and in a few cases, just bermuda. The players must approach tiny greens, huge ones, some with lots of contouring, others more titled and lacking the buried elephants. And during one week they have to remember where Indio is.
The variety of architectural styles and courses setups throws a bit of everything at them. Everything from Pete Dye-designed TPC’s that were once impossible, to world class masterpieces where most of the legends have strolled, they even play a few niftier gems rewarding more than just launched drives.
Like high rough and narrow fairways? You can enjoy that at Torrey Pines, Innisbrook and San Antonio. Want some Augusta-like freedom to drive? Kapalua, Riviera and the desert courses will give an idea where you stand with that new driver your favorite manufacturer is begging you to play.
In 2023, we repeat the traditional PGA Tour schedule with two twists prompted by LIV’s emergence.
The PGA Tour’s new designated events feature monster purses and required appearances unless you get a excuse note from your agent or your physio or your physio’s agent. The new designation means some other events will suffer, leading to some extensive behind-the-scenes Global Home maneuvering to lure top players into making starts at places they would not have chosen before “designated” came along.
(Semantics-watchers take note: “elevated” has been sent to the same bin as “strategic alliance” and “Live Under Par.”)
Early tournament commitments suggest a few players will turn up in spots they don’t normally play. Vice Commissioner Rory McIlroy is using his opt-out to pass on Kapalua in anticipation of an added start down the road. Still, this jockeying amounts to very minor stuff in the grand Masters scheme, particularly compared to the “plight” of LIV defectors who now get just six competitive rounds to prepare.
As the rogue league enters year two, LIV Golf has siphoned off several players who’ve enjoyed prior Masters success along with a few others who have aspirations of winning. But the LIVsters will have to do it after giving up access to the PGA Tour’s version of spring training.
The Saudi Arabia-backed tour has scheduled only two events prior to the Tradition Unlike Any Other: at El Camaleon Golf Club in Mexico from February 24-26, and at The Gallery Golf Club in Tucson from March 17-19. (Some defectors petitioning their DP World Tour status may turn up in the early season Middle East events, but after those, the DP schedule isn’t exactly heavy on convenient, lucrative or enticing opportunities. With all due respect to the Magical Kenya Open.)
To better understand the importance of building up some early season scar tissue, let’s look at the 2022 Masters Top 10 who were able to enjoy a traditional tournament prelude. The list starts with two players who showed zero form before having nice weeks in Augusta. But I swear the theory holds up after that.