KUALA LUMPUR: Buckle up and hold on to your seats as the PGA TOUR is poised to deliver a spectacular extravaganza this year with golf’s newest and rising stars colliding with the legends of the game, headlined by none other than Tiger Woods and Phil “The Thrill” Mickelson.
A revamped PGA TOUR Schedule which now features a blockbuster tournament each month from March to August plus more cash than ever before following a hike in the FedExCup bonus payout and the introduction of the Wyndham Rewards scheme will all but guarantee the New Year heralds plenty of thrills, spills and drama for both players, fans and TV viewers alike.
Inside the ropes, the growing strength in depth of the TOUR’s talent pool – there were 10 wins by players 25 years or younger last season – has commentators brimming with anticipation as the new generation of global golf stars such as Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jon Ram, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele, Francesco Molinari and 2018 FedExCup champion Justin Rose continue to captivate with world-class performances.
The exciting emergence of Bryson “The Scientist” DeChambeau, who won the first two FedExCup Playoff events last season, and long-hitting sensation Cameron Champ will further add to the growing anticipation while much is expected from Jordan Spieth in the New Year following a frustrating winless campaign last season.
The old boys including Mickelson and Woods have spiced things up by showing the young guns they are still very capable of winning the ones that matter. Mickelson, 48, claimed a thrilling victory at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship by beating Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup winner, in a playoff.
Ultimately, all eyes will very much be on Woods, who produced a fairytale comeback by claiming an 80th PGA TOUR title at the TOUR Championship in August – a year after he told the world’s media he wasn’t sure if he would be competing again after undergoing a fourth back injury.
Winner of the inaugural FedExCup and holder of 14 major titles, the 43-year-old Woods delivered one of the most extraordinary storylines witnessed in sport. He finished T2 in his only fourth start of his comeback before contending at The Open Championship and PGA Championship, finishing T6 and runner-up respectively. With each passing week, the roars grew louder and his remarkable victory at Eastlake, his first in five years, sparked wild scenes which ended with Woods holding back tears on the 18th green.
NBC reported its TV ratings spiked by 206% compared to the 2017 TOUR Championship, prompting observers to say Woods doesn’t just move the needle, he is in fact the needle.
In the New Year, a fit-again Woods will be motivated to resume his chase towards Sam Snead’s all-time 82 wins record on the PGA TOUR and also Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles. He is also keen to lock horns with his younger contemporaries, who are relishing the opportunity to duel with their idol. “The younger guys were on their way in when I was on my way out. You know, they had never really played against me when I was playing well. Whether it's J.T. (Thomas), Jordan, now Bryson, Brooksy, it was just getting out here, getting started. I think that when my game is there, I feel like I've always been a tough person to beat,” said Woods.
“They have jokingly been saying that, "We want to go against you." All right … here you go.”
Asia’s charge this year will very much be led by its highest ranked player in the world, Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, who at 26 years of age is a five-time PGA TOUR champion. The focus will also be on new kid on the block, Kiradech Aphibarnrat who is the first golfer from Thailand to earn a PGA TOUR card. “I’m looking forward to playing my best golf on the PGA TOUR. It is a dream come true and I hope I can make my country proud,” said the 29-year-old, who posted three top-fives in the World Golf Championships events last year.
South Korea’s Si Woo Kim, the youngest winner at THE PLAYERS Championship in 2017, Byeonghun An, India’s Anirban Lahiri and C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei are amongst those touted as potential winners on the PGA TOUR. They also share a common goal of trying to make the International Team to face the United States in the Presidents Cup at The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia from December 9 to 15, 2019. With Malaysia’s Gavin Green safely keeping his European Tour card for 2019, the long-hitting Malaysian is very much tipped to enjoy a breakout year beyond Asian shores.
PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan believes recent changes to the TOUR Schedule, which effectively sees the TOUR’s flagship event, THE PLAYERS Championship moving into a March slot, proceeded by The Masters Tournament in April, PGA Championship in May, U.S. Open in June, The Open Championship in July and the FedExCup Playoffs, which culminates with the season-finale TOUR Championship in August, will provide the drama and excitement so often associated with the world’s leading professional golf tour.
“These changes allow for more volatility and drama and the option for the TOUR to put forth additional enhancements to make the season incredibly compelling, again, from start to finish,” said Monahan.
The new FedExCup champion in 2019 will earn a whopping US$15 million in bonus after FedEx increased its bonus pool from US$35 million to US$60 million. “You'll see comprehensive player earnings jump to over $500 million in 2019, a jump of 12%, something that we're proud of. They've got to go out and they've got to earn it. The No. 1 player in the FedExCup (in 2019) will earn roughly US$27 million. Lots on the line; every single shot in the FedExCup season every week.”
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR, and is based in Kuala Lumpur.