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Kurt Kitayama emerged from a chaotic Sunday at Bay Hill to earn his first PGA Tour win.
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss the epic final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the PGA Tour’s tweaks to designated events, a Tiger-less Players and more.
1. The PGA Tour unveiled its new Designated Events Model last week, which detailed how eight select designated events for 2024 will consist of smaller fields (70 to 80 players) and be played without a cut. We already broke down much of this (which you can read here), but even though some top players praised the changes, the main pushback we’ve heard from dissenters seems to be that this essentially creates two tiers of the PGA Tour. Do you agree, and should the Tour’s rank-and-file players be bothered by these changes?
Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): In a way, they are correct that it is two tiers, but isn’t that what the PGA Tour vs. the Korn Ferry is, or LPGA vs. Epson Tour, or WGCs (RIP) in general? I can see how some would be irked, but these do provide the opportunity for those not qualified to play their way in. If it were up to me — and it’s not — I’d like to see the field expanded even a little, maybe to 100, and still have a cut, which I think is oddly necessary for me to be more invested in a golf tournament. I’m interested to see how it all plays out and curious what kind of fields we’ll get for non-elevated events, which is an important factor here.
Sean Zak, senior writer (@sean_zak): This feels like a no-brainer move that, in the face of competition from LIV, checks so many boxes for the PGA Tour. Almost all the boxes. The Tour’s rank-and-file players should be bothered by the fact that, for the first time, they are being told they need to get better to have true a la carte of the buffet of events. Being top 50 matters now where being top 100 used to be the goal. They’re allowed to be bothered by the newness of this, but it’s not unfair. Their lives are still really, really, really good.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): Exactly, Sean. This makes official what has been plain for a long time: there have always been two tiers, one made up of the biggest needle-movers, and the other composed of excellent players who most folks at home can barely tell apart. They’re a key part of the Tour, and they generate some great stories from time to time. But, in the big picture of supply and demand, they are mostly interchangeable parts. And it’s not as if they’re underpaid. Like Berhow, I don’t like getting rid of cuts. And I don’t like being sold the idea that the motivation behind eliminating cuts is to guarantee that little Timmy gets to watch his favorite players on the weekend. This is about pleasing the top players. Let’s not pretend it’s about something else.
2. English pro Eddie Pepperell took to Twitter and explained why he thinks these changes could “embolden” some disgruntled PGA Tour players to join LIV Golf. His reasoning: If only the top players qualify for half of the designated events (and if they aren’t one of the few qualifiers), there will be very good players left out of some lucrative paydays. Does he have a point? If you are Greg Norman and LIV Golf, do you see an upside for LIV here?
Berhow: Well, even for those who don’t qualify for designated events, word is they still pay out big bucks for top-10 finishes at currently non-designated stops like San Antonio, Toronto, Detroit, etc., so it’s not like there isn’t money to go around. But Eddie isn’t wrong, either. There’s definitely pros out there who could miss those big-money events, finish somewhere outside of the top 70 in the FedEx Cup standings (meaning no playoffs) and be frustrated with the format. Maybe LIV comes calling with an enticing offer. But you could also use this exact scenario as motivation to get better and get yourself back into the mix for designated events. As one of my annoying friends likes to say oflten: play better.
Zak: That’s a fine take, Eddie. Like we’ve said all along, if you want to shirk competition and meritocracy, go to LIV. They hand out invites to an entire slate of events. If you end up on the outside looking in on the FedEx Cup standings, that’s your right. But Eddie is comparing the two as if one doesn’t have a ton of baggage.
Sens: He could be right. But if the past year-plus has proven anything, it’s that the vast majority of players not named Tiger, Rory or Jordan are pretty easily replaced.
3. Kurt Kitayama made a clutch par on the 72nd hole of the Arnold Palmer Invitational to win by one over Rory McIlroy and Harris English, but the leaderboard was loaded with big-time talent threatening all day on Sunday. Are you more surprised that Kitayama picked up his first career PGA Tour victory, or more surprised by a certain pro who didn’t finish the job?
Berhow: I thought Scheffler would have played a little better. I would say I’m shocked by Jordan Spieth’s rollercoaster round, but we should be used to that by now. You have to give Kitayama a ton of credit. He’s no slouch — this was the third time he’s grabbed a 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour this season, and it’s barely March — but with a 54-hole lead and in an elevated event at a difficult course, it was hard to predict what he’d do today. Yet he got an unbelievably unlucky break on 9, made triple bogey and somehow still won a golf tournament over a bunch of proven thoroughbreds. I don’t think many people would have been surprised to see him bogey 18 and go into a three-way playoff after we saw where his drive landed, yet he almost birdied and took all the stress out of that winning putt. Who wins when they make a triple bogey on Sunday?! Nuts. Another really good elevated event that delivered.
Sens: The course was playing so tough that it wasn’t a shock to see some hiccups on Sunday though I wouldn’t have bet on Scheffler’s bogey from the fairway on 18, or Hovland’s water ball from position A on the 16th. A bigger surprise was Rahm’s tumble after an opening 65. That man has been making things look almost unfair of late. And, as Josh said, the biggest surprise of all was Kitayama. A triple and then a title? After that hole, I figured he’d take a quick exit, stage left.
Zak: Definitely more surprised that Kitayama got it done. I think he might sneaky be a baller but he woke up Sunday morning as a non-Tour-winner staring down a leaderboard of thoroughbreds. When he made that mistake on 9, that was a moment where non-winners crumble. We’ve seen it time after time. And then he pulled his tee shot on 18, and that was a moment where non-winners freak out. He didn’t freak out in either moment. Instead, he hit a fantastic shot on 18 and cruised to win. Stones!
4. With Bay Hill behind us, we now look ahead to the PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. One pro who won’t be there, though, is Tiger Woods, who isn’t in the field and likely won’t make his next start until the Masters. Woods has said several times he only plans to play a couple of events outside of the majors, but are you still at all surprised he’s skipping the Players? And does this give you any concern regarding his Masters prospects?
Berhow: Very slightly surprised but not shocked he’s skipping the Players. When he originally said he’d play the majors plus a few others back at the Hero in December, I thought that meant Genesis (his event) as his top choice and the Players as the next most-logical option. Maybe he’ll surprise us and play the Memorial. But it might just be four majors this year, if healthy, plus a PNC Championship with Charlie in December. As for the Masters, if he’s as healthy as he can be and his body isn’t too banged up from the walk that week, he could be in the mix. He knows that course better than anyone.
Zak: Not surprised one bit. He doesn’t need to. Two months ago we wouldn’t have even discussed it. The best peek into his Masters prospects are not if he chooses to compete in a massive field on a course he doesn’t love. The best peek was how he shot 67 at Riviera in the third round. I think Woods is extremely capable of being six under through 54 holes at the Masters, six back of the lead.
Sens: I’d have been surprised if he decided to play. He’s won twice at Sawgrass but it has never been his sweet spot. And at this point, he seems to need the rest more than he needs the reps. Augusta here we come. Vegas has him at 36-1, which seems about right.
5. The par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course gets most of the attention, but what about the rest of the course? Where does it rank among the Tour’s annual stops?
Berhow: Hand up, TPC Sawgrass has really grown on me over the years. There are so many really good holes: the par-5 11th; people are divided on the drivable par-4 12th but I love it; 16 is a great reachable par-5 and 18 is a tough finisher. Taking out major venues, I’d put it only behind Pebble and Riviera, and maybe Harbour Town and maybe Muirfield. But I’d guess it’s the course your average golf fan would most want to play simply to take on the 17th. Now, would I want to pay the greens fee for Sawgrass? Yikes.
Zak: I think the best way to understand Sawgrass’ test is to watch featured group coverage on Thursday and Friday. They’ll show you every hole and help you understand the different shot shapes and clubs used off the tee, and the different approach lengths you’ll get. That’s what I love about it — every shot is its own test. Not just 17. I think in terms of test it’s probably tied or just narrowly behind Riviera, but that’s it.
Sens: The 17th is a memorable hole but I’m not sure I’d call it a great hole. My favorite collection of holes at Sawgrass are the par-5s, though I’d put the short par-4 4th and 12th up there as well. As for regular Tour stops, I’d rank them: Riviera, Pebble, Harbour Town and, though I suspect I’m in the minority on this one, I’d give the fourth spot to PGA West, just ahead of Sawgrass.
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