One by one, golfers at the FedEx Cup playoff events who spoke after shooting low rounds talked about how they not only wanted to contend that week, they wanted to “make it to East Lake.” Their reference was to the venue of this week’s Tour Championship, the pot of gold at the end of the FedEx Cup Playoffs rainbow.
The 30-man, no-cut event is the culminating tournament to the PGA Tour season, and any player who qualifies for it also automatically gets into next season’s major championships, World Golf Championships and more. Stars such as Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose expect to get into the Tour Championship, but the guaranteed prize money and the perks that come with playing in the event can be career-altering for up-and-comers and journeymen who finally have their breakthrough season.
After this week’s edition, the Tour Championship is being moved forward on the calendar. In 2019 it will end Aug. 25, eight days before Labor Day and well before the National Football League takes over the sports sections of media outlets across America.
The move on the calendar is smart. Going back to the tradition of moving the tournament’s venue would be smart too, but don’t look for it to happen.
In August 2016 the PGA Tour announced that Coca-Cola and Southern Company, both of which are based in Atlanta, had been elevated to Proud Partner (capital P, capital P) status and were committed to supporting the Tour Championship at East Lake through 2020.
“As Atlanta-based companies, their longstanding commitment to the tournament reflects their investment in and passionate support of their home community,” said Tim Finchem, who was the PGA Tour’s commissioner at the time. “Now, as we strive to continue the growth and impact of the Tour Championship, their newly defined roles as Proud Partners will play a critical role in further elevating the tournament’s stature in the coming years.”
In other words, the world’s largest beverage maker and the United States’ second-largest utility are laying out big bucks and are expected to do so again in the future, so unless they want the Tour Championship moved away from their corporate headquarters, it’s not going anywhere.
The charitable work done by these companies, and others involved with the Tour Championship, is great and helps a lot of people in the Atlanta community, but the PGA Tour should be taking a page out of the NFL’s playbook and moving the season-ending event around to create buzz and excitement.
Most golf fans probably forget that the first Tour Championship, which was won by Tom Watson, was contested in 1987 about 1,000 miles to the Southwest of Atlanta, at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio. The following year at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Curtis Strange won the Tour Championship in a playoff over Tom Kite, but Kite would win the next year at Harbour Town Golf Links in a playoff over Payne Stewart.
The Tour Championship then made two-year runs at Pinehurst No. 2, The Olympic Club and Southern Hills Golf Club before alternating between Champions Golf Club in Houston and East Lake starting in 1997. Since 2004, all Tour Championships have been played at East Lake, the course Bobby Jones grew up playing.
The Super Bowl is going to be played next February in Atlanta, before going to Miami, Tampa, Los Angeles, Glendale, Ariz. and New Orleans. The venues are not new, but they have a distinct personality and create a fantastic atmosphere.
There is nothing wrong with East Lake, but the next time you hear one of your buddies say that it is high on his bucket list of golf courses to play before he dies, it probably also will be the first time you’ve heard that.
If East Lake means that much to the Tour, keep it in a Super Bowl-style rota of venues with clubs such as Pinehurst, Olympic, Winged Foot, Bel Air Country Club, Chicago Country Club and a few others. Wishful thinking, I know, but getting elite venues to host the Tour Championship would give the Tour a better chance to elevate the tournament’s status and generate a lot more interest.
If Coca-Cola and Southern Company ever decide to spend their sports marketing budgets on other events and walk away from the Tour Championship – an event that in the playoff era is becoming synonymous with FedEx – it might just lead to a fantastic opportunity for the Tour to grow the event that should end its season with a bang.
Be honest, “Make it to Pinehurst” has a beautiful ring to it. Gwk