In recent weeks, the announcements of top stars committing to play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am have trickled in. While top-ranked Jordan Spieth has played the event in each of his three seasons on Tour and No. 2 ranked Jason Day is a regular at the event, they will be joined by a pair of top-10 participants as Bubba Watson and Justin Rose recently committed to play. That means six of the top-10 in the world are committed to play at Pebble Beach – much better than the two, two, and three top-10 players who played in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
The eventual field at Pebble Beach should be the best on aggregate in recent years, surely a welcome result for the tournament organizers. Since 2011, Pebble Beach has ranked as the 35th PGA Tour field when looking at scoring average of participants and 30th best in terms of the Official World Golf Ranking’s Strength of Field metric (which is largely determined by how many top 200 golfers are participating). It shows how unappealing the event has become when you consider it’s held at one of the best courses in the world at one of the least crowded times of the year in terms of important events.
While the Pebble Beach Pro-Am has recovered to a great extent this year, it highlights the difficulties regular run-of-the-mill events are having attracting the top players – especially with the particularly congested summer schedule in 2016. Since the PGA Tour transitioned to a wrap-around schedule beginning in 2013, the events in the fall have improved the quality of their fields dramatically – by 0.4 strokes better in scoring average per golfer and by an average of 2.0 times higher Strength of Field rating. This reflects the promotion of these events to award full FedEx Cup points. While before the Fall Series represented an option to help a sponsor out or keep your game sharp during the off-season, it now represents a legitimate opportunity to position yourself better for the next season.
The result is a squeeze on some of the similar regular events held throughout the old PGA Tour calendar which now have to compete with events offering comparable purses and FedEx Cup points and the opportunity to play in a less congested portion of the schedule. Pebble Beach sits among those who have struggled with declining field quality – joined by the Zurich Classic, Quicken Loans National, St. Jude, and John Deere Classic. Three of those events have also seen a 10% or more decline in Strength of Field rating (and correspondingly in the World Ranking points on offer). Three of them also sit in that extremely busy June through September portion of the 2016 season where three majors, the Olympics, FedEx Cup playoff and a WGC will be held in a 15-week period that will leave little time for the St. Jude, John Deere, or Quicken Loans. Also affected may be the Greenbrier Classic – which had by far its best field measured by scoring average in 2015 – due to being held in an undesirable week before the Open Championship when many will prefer early travel and/or a links warm-up at the Scottish Open.
Part of the problem for these regular events is the increase in purse sizes across many other PGA Tour events in recent seasons. The average regular Tour event purse (non-major/WGC/Players/FedEx Cup) will be $6.5 million in 2016. This is the first year the Pebble Beach Pro-am will offer $7 million in total money after slowly increasing from $6.3 million in 2011. The St. Jude Classic offers $6.2 million this season – an increase of only $600,000 over 2011. The John Deere is even lower at $4.8 million – an increase of $300,000 over 2011. The Quicken Loans National offers a stronger $6.9 million – showing that that tournament’s issues may be more about the constantly changing course and date on the schedule rather than the purse.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2016, it seems likely that the regular events around that June to September stretch – especially the Travelers (sandwiched between the PGA and Olympics in an atypical schedule spot) and the Canadian Open (positioned the week following the Open and immediately prior to the PGA Championship) – will suffer. Those two along with the Greenbrier and Quicken Loans National may attract fewer top players than normal.
The only thing for certain: It’s going to be a busy 2016.