The WGC Effect

It’s no secret that World Golf Championships are a success. Look at the fields. Look at the purses. Look at the sponsors. This past week at the Cadillac 20 of the top 20 players in the world were in the field (prior to Jason Day’s dns). It’s almost impossible for players to turn down: no cut, huge (guaranteed; last place at the Cadillac a week ago “won” over 50 grand) money, top courses, and top competition. This being said, easily the biggest beneficiaries of WGC events are the US viewers and the PGA tour, but maybe not in the way you think.

WGC events began 15 years ago with the goal of promoting a more world-wide game. The events currently consist of the Accenture Match Play Championship, the Cadillac Championship, the Bridgestone Invitational, and the HSBC Champions. These tournaments are co-sanctioned by several global tours: PGA Tour, European Tour, Asian Tour, Sunshine Tour, Japan Golf Tour, and the PGA Tour of Australasia. Exemptions for the Match Play are simply the top 64 players in the world golf rankings that wish to participate. For the other three, exemptions include the top 50 players in the world rankings plus various exemptions for each of the participating tours. WGC events generally have fields of about 70-75 players, except the match play which always has 64, so there is no 2-day cut. There was even briefly talk of the series turning into a world tour of sorts.

But the recent schedule of having three American-based WGC events has been a boon for both the PGA Tour and American audiences. American audiences get to watch the top players in the world compete on home soil (no tape delay!) on solid and diverse courses. Also, the Match Play is tremendous on TV, especially early in the week when there are a bunch of matches going on at once. How often are tournaments more exciting in the first few days?

Having these events in the US does two very positive things for the PGA Tour. First, it keeps top American talent from going abroad and possibly skipping out on tournaments they’d normally play. Secondly, it brings in talented, top-ranked players from tours abroad.

It is this last point that I really want to talk about. Casual golf fans may not know or care about Kiradech Aphibarnrat, but they do recognize names like Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Matteo Manassero. Those are names that people want to watch, both in person and on TV. Without the WGC-Cadillac last week these players, and several others ranked in the top 60 in the world are almost certainly not in the field this week at the Valspar Championship. Both Rose and Oosthuizen split time on the PGA and European tours, generally only playing in top tournaments on this side of the pond.

What may be surprising is that this week’s Valspar is decidedly not a top tournament on tour; it has the smallest purse since the Humana and there won’t be a smaller one until mid-July at the John Deere, notorious for weaker fields because the British Open is the week after. Yet these Euros are still teeing it up. By my count, there are at least 7 players in the world top 70 that would almost certainly not be playing this week without a nearby WGC event last week. That’s a big deal for audiences, sponsors, and the Tour.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this effect is at the Honda, which is sandwiched between the WGC-Matchplay and WGC-Cadillac. Without these two events being held on American soil (and one also in Florida) there is absolutely no way the Honda gets such a solid field. There were 10 of the top 20 players in the world at the Honda. Without local WGC events this number goes down by half. Conservatively. The loss of players ranked from 21-70 would be similar. With Accenture’s sponsorship ending, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens if the WGC Match Play moves to an international location (from the current spot at Dove Mountain in Arizona).

One of my favorite WGC effects this season is the return of Peter Uihlein. This young, talented American chose to go to Europe to follow his professional golfing dreams after a stellar amateur career. His play on the European Tour last year was good enough to earn him a spot in the WGC-Cadillac, and he just barely missed out on the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Uihlein was given sponsors’ exemptions both for the Honda as well as this week’s Valspar, allowing for an extended homecoming.

American golf’s benefits from hosting WGC events have been myriad. Both the PGA tour and casual viewer should hope that these WGC events remain stateside, lest exciting players leave for greener pastures, creating a void that reaches beyond the events themselves.

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