Zurich Classic Brings Spice Tour Badly Needs

This week’s port of call on the PGA Tour showcases what golf needs more of, as surely as last week’s stop represented what it has too much of.

The Zurich Classic went to a two-man team format in 2017, becoming the first team event on Tour since 1981. The innovations continue this week as each team selects first-tee walk-up music on the weekend. Assuming Kevin Na doesn’t need an entire symphony before actually hitting the ball, this further enhances the cool vibe in New Orleans.

It’s an admirable effort on the part of tournament organizers to generate an identity and fan appeal at an event that lacked either. Players have so readily embraced the new format and atmosphere that they might forget how only a year ago they voted TPC of Louisiana the second worst course on Tour.

That same poll declared the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio the fourth-worst stop on the schedule, suggesting that being named for a corporation isn’t the most objectionable thing about it. The Greg Norman design (presumably he confessed to it under interrogation) hosted last week’s Valero Texas Open. It is one of the Tour’s oldest and most respected events and raises huge sums for charity. Yet players look forward to TPC San Antonio much as a condemned man does the gallows.

Fans are no more enthusiastic.

That’s not a knock on the Texas Open. The PGA Tour calendar has a handful of events that struggle to generate interest, squeezed by major championships, WGCs and assorted other tournaments that compete for player commitments and fan engagement. Still hungover from the Masters and not yet primed for the Players, golfers aren’t eager to watch another 72-hole stroke play trudge at an undistinguished course.

Another Texas tournament mired in a calendar dead zone is taking steps to juice its profile. The AT&T Byron Nelson Classic is moving to Trinity Forest – a greatly anticipated design by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – and abandoning the course voted the worst on Tour: TPC Las Colinas (alert readers will notice a trend here).

Moving courses isn’t an option for every event that needs to up its oomph, but the changes made at Zurich and Nelson – and the inventive fan-friendly tactics now commonplace in Europe – should not go unnoticed. After all, staleness and sameness are not concerns limited to a few events on one Tour.

The PGA Tour Champions had its team event last week at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf. The format and venues (three rounds are played on par-3 courses) echoed the early days of the senior tour, when the focus was on familiar faces having fun.

Along the way something was lost as the older guys became more competitive and the Tour more corporate.

In fairness, most of golf’s legends are either too old (Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino) or too uninterested (Norman, Faldo) to play the Champions circuit. That leaves Bernhard Langer pursued by jockeying journeymen salivating at a second career. That’s great for the guys, but it seems a dubious long-term strategy to assume fans want to watch Joe Durant and Steve Flesch lift trophies.

A few months back, I asked Scott McCarron if the PGA Tour Champions suffers from a dearth of the characters on whom it was built. “We’ve got John Daly, Colin Montgomerie. We’ve got Darren Clarke coming out,” he replied gamely. “You can’t replace a Chi Chi. You can’t replace a Lee Trevino. You can’t replace an Arnold Palmer. But we’ve got phenomenal players. There are 20 guys who could still play on the regular Tour if they still played full time.”

McCarron is right about that, and in a way that might be the problem. Should the Champions tour be just a Dulcolax version of the regular Tour? We already have an abundance of cutout pros winning stroke-play tournaments on pedestrian courses. Fans of every Tour deserve fresher formats and novel approaches that better engage the audience.

It doesn’t take much to improve a familiar menu. Witness the “Celebration of Champions” being held by the U.S. Golf Association on Tuesday of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. If the most demanding and grueling week of the year can find time for a fun detour from the norm, other events can too. Something beyond the lazy celebrity angle. There’s a reason every Saturday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is the most abhorrent broadcast this side of Keeping Up with the Real Shotmakers of Jersey Shore.

Spicing up formats occasionally won’t diminish professional golf. The traditional standard of 72 holes of stroke play will always decide the events that matter most. But that standard shouldn’t always matter most.

Golfweek, April 22, 2018.

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