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Schedule tweaks should boost Tour drama

By CHUAH CHOO CHIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-11 10:02
PGA golfer Jason Dufner hits out of the sand on the 18th hole during the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii golf tournament at Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, HI, USA, Jan 10, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

Buckle up and hold on to your seats as the PGA Tour is poised to deliver a spectacular extravaganza in 2019, with golf's newest and rising stars colliding with the legends of the game.

A revamped PGA Tour schedule, now featuring a blockbuster tournament each month from March to August, plus more cash than ever following a hike in the FedExCup bonus payout and the introduction of the Wyndham Rewards scheme, all but guarantee plenty of thrills, spills and drama for players, fans and TV viewers alike.

The growing strength and 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 stars such as Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and 2018 FedExCup champion Justin Rose continue to reel off world-class performances.

The exciting emergence of Bryson DeChambeau, who won the first two FedExCup playoff events last season, and long-hitting sensation Cameron Champ further add to the growing anticipation while much is expected from Jordan Spieth in 2019 following a frustrating winless campaign last season.

The old boys - including Phil Mickelson and Tiger 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 Fed-ExCup 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 surgery.

Winner of the inaugural FedEx-Cup and holder of 14 major titles, the 43-year-old Woods delivered one of the most extraordinary storylines witnessed in sport. He finished tied for second in his only fourth start of his comeback before contending at the British Open and PGA Championship, finishing tied for sixth and runner-up, respectively.

With each passing week, Tiger's roars grew louder and his remarkable victory at Eastlake, his first in five years, sparked wild scenes that ended with Woods holding back tears on the 18th green.

NBC reported its TV ratings increased by a whopping 206 percent compared to the 2017 Tour Championship, prompting observers to say Woods doesn't just move the needle, he is in fact the needle.

Heading into the new season, a fit-again Woods will be motivated to resume his pursuit of Sam Snead's all-time record of 82 PGA Tour victories and Jack Nicklaus' 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 JT (Thomas), Jordan, now Bryson, Brooksy, they were 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 in 2019 will very much be led by its highest ranked player in the world, Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, who at age 26 is already 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 Aphibarnrat, who posted three top-five finishes in 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 CT Pan of Chinese Taipei are among 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 Dec 9-15, 2019. The continued success of China's Li Haotong and Wu Ashun, who represented their nation in the recent ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf, will also be closely followed as they bid to make Ernie Els' International team.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan believes recent changes to the schedule, which sees the The Players Championship moving into a March slot, followed by The Masters in April, the PGA Championship in May, the US Open in June, the British Open 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 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 $15 million in bonus cash after FedEx increased its bonus pool from $35 million to $60 million.

"You'll see comprehensive player earnings jump to over $500 million in 2019, a jump of 12 percent, something that we're proud of," said Monahan. "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 $27 million. There is a lot on the line with every single shot every week."

The writer is senior director of communications for the PGA Tour and is based in TPC Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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