Let's just assume for a minute that there is indeed fire where there's smoke and that the talk is legitimate of as many as a dozen-and-a-half current PGA Tour players are willing to sign or have signed with the Saudi golf league.
There are reasons to be skeptical of players signing on the dotted line, but it's clear the financial offers are very real. What's unclear is who will jump first in this multi-billion-dollar game of chicken. Nevertheless, the PGA Tour has to perceive a rival golf league, funded by backers who don't need to so much as break even, as a threat. That's why there's the now $50 million Player Impact Program. That's why the Tour is reportedly concocting its own rival concept to the vauge notion of what the Saudi league would look like if and when it materializes.
However, it seems that there are some star player complaints that aren't just based in pure, shameless greed.
They want more guaranteed money, and they want more of the money that comes from rights fees, ticket sales and merchandise funneled into their collective coffers. But they also want to earn it with a lighter schedule. They want to play in high-profile events in more of a closed system that better entrenches their place on Easy Street.
This is something the PGA Tour can do. They might not be able to do it in six or 12 short months, but it's something they could piece together pretty rapidly for a 65-year-old, seemingly monolithic organization. The Saudis have the advantage of starting from scratch, but the PGA Tour is just a few chess moves from a reimagined, three-tier system that could appease their stars, elevate sponsors at different levels and be a win for almost everyone involved.
Acknowledging the Haves and Have-Nots
The PGA Tour season is too long. It's 47 weeks, and there are way too many tournaments for a fan to engage with at the same level every week.
For more than a decade, it's also been clear there are approximately 15 tournaments on the schedule that attract the best fields. They offer the highest purses and often times have smaller fields, perhaps no cut and treat the players in an even more elevated fashion. Events that fall outside of those top 15 don't get the same quality fields because they're all vying for a much smaller pool of starts that the top players can allocate outside the majors, FedEx Cup playoffs, invitationals and WGCs.
Imagine an answer for that problem: a two-tiered system that breaks up the schedule into two distinct tracks and culminates in a finale golf fans will finally find captivating.
Take those 15 or so tournaments that the top players patronize and make them the basis for a new Gold Standard Tour (a nod to The Players). Make this Tour open to the top, let's say, 50 players in the world, and round it out with a relegation component I'll get to shortly.
Each of these events would offer a purse in the area of $20 million. There would be no cut. Every player would earn at least at least $75,000 for competing that week. There would be bonus pools for low rounds of each day, as well as for holes-in-one. All of the players in the league would be required to compete unless injured. These tournaments would air on network TV.
It would be hard to imagine that the Tour would have a lot of trouble going to the title sponsors of these select events and asking them to pony up a few more million dollars for an increased purse in exchange for guaranteed great fields that will draw and increased TV exposure.
What would the Tour do with the other 32 events? Those events would be the basis for new PGA Tour (or whatever name they chose, probably with a title sponsor). The players who didn't qualify for the Gold Standard Tour would compete in this circuit, and they'd be playing for purses closer to $8 million to $9 million most weeks. These events would air mostly on cable or PGA Tour Live, but there would be room for network coverage on weeks that the GST isn't competing.
There would still be remarkable depth on this tour, whose 72-hole events would continue to have cuts. Even if the national and international interest weren't quite as high for these tournaments, they would still draw regionally and allow the PGA Tour to continue supporting its mission of community philanthropy. Tournaments that may have lost status or been shuffled down in priority could regain some measure of importance on this new, better spaced schedule.
This new second-tier tour -- the Korn Ferry Tour would become a third-tier tour -- would have some crossover events with the GST. The most notable of these events would be The Players, which could feel even more major-like by bringing the top 50 players from the Gold Standard Tour together with 106 players from the second-tier tour in a battle for the PGA Tour's most prestigious event. Throw in a few more opportunities like this and add in the four majors, and there's not a total disconnect between the two products.
Elevation and Relegation
Since 2007, the PGA Tour season has culminated in the FedEx Cup champion that, other than just once (sorry, Bill Haas), has always been won by a player considered a superstar-level player at the time. That concept, then, should live with the Gold Standard Tour. Bring the season to a head with one tournament for $75 million. Fans aren't going to care about the money in the same way the players will, but do it anyhow.
However, status on the Gold Standard Tour shouldn't be guaranteed each year. In fact, there should be system of elevation and relegation.
The bottom 15 players on the Gold Standard Tour -- based on points or money -- would move back down to the PGA Tour for the next season. Meanwhile, the second-tier tour would have a playoff system (Comcast Business?) for less money but with the prize of elevation to the Gold Standard Tour that would effectively be a million-dollar guarantee for each player. It would mean a fresh injection of new talent each year, and it would make access to that level of money as meaningful as the jump from the Korn Ferry Tour to the modern PGA Tour.
The end result here is a concept that acknowledges the realities of player demands, the PGA Tour schedule, fan and TV interest and the Tour's mission. If we were starting from scratch, pro golf would look a whole lot like this. Now is an opportunity to make that happen.