New PGA Tour rule may mean new faces for Hilton Head's RBC Heritage
By Jeff Shain
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Lowcountry golf fans might stand a better chance of seeing Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson or Adam Scott at Harbour Town under a pending PGA Tour regulation that will require members to schedule an event they haven't played in the past four seasons.
At the same time, there's a possibility the RBC Heritage could lose a marquee player or two who takes Hilton Head off his schedule to accommodate the new addition.
"That's tough to tell," Tournament Director Steve Wilmot said. "I think it will certainly help us with some players. And unfortunately we might lose some each year, too, knowing they have to pick and choose other events as well.
"But it's good for the tour, and what's good for the tour is good for us."
The tour informed its members via email recently that starting with the 2016-17 season, players will be required to add one event they have not visited in the previous four seasons. Major championships, World Golf Championship events and FedExCup playoffs do not count as add-ons, nor invitational fields at the Memorial Tournament and Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Members who made at least 25 starts the previous season are exempt, as are life members (20 wins and 15 years on tour) and veterans age 45 and older. Players with significant injuries also may be granted waivers. For everyone else, violations will draw a minimum $20,000 fine or suspension.
"We do need a bit of movement by the players," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem told reporters at the recent Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. "We think it changes the culture a little bit."
The rule has been discussed in various forms for nearly two decades, proposed as a way to help events that have struggled to attract popular names.
Tiger Woods, for instance, rarely deviated from a 16- or 17-event template that effectively divided the schedule – and viewer attention – into "Tiger events" and "non-Tiger events." Phil Mickelson, too, settled into a pattern that often loaded up on West Coast stops and select events before majors.
"When we sell the event, unfortunately what we can't sell is who's going to be in the field," Wilmot said. "Without question, I think it's great for the tour, great for spectators, great for sponsors."
The LPGA has had its own "one-in-four" rule for more than a decade, requiring every U.S. event be played by members at least once every four years.
Of the top 65 players in the current world rankings, 39 have played the RBC Heritage at least once in the past four years. That includes such marquee regulars as two-time champion Jim Furyk, former winners Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker and reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson. World No.1 Jordan Spieth has made three visits.
Of those that haven't played the event, all but eight are either non-members, exempt life members or PGA Tour rookies.
Those eight, though, make up a pretty strong pair of foursomes. McIlroy heads the group, which includes five others among the current top 12 – Scott, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. Brooks Koepka and Jimmy Walker round out the list.
"Strength of field is certainly important to our sponsors, without question," Wilmot said.
He pointed to the buzz created by Spieth's presence last April, days after his runaway Masters victory. Galleries for his group were the event's biggest since at least 1999, when Woods made his only appearance at Harbour Town.
"It was unbelievable," Wilmot said. "I'd never seen anything like it."
Likewise, Woods' first visit to the Wyndham Championship in August – a last-ditch effort to get into the FedExCup playoffs – was met by a surge in those crowds and TV viewership. It also may have been the catalyst that finally got the new rule passed.
"He changed that tournament forever, just by him being there that one time," Jason Gore told Golf Channel. "Now people are sitting there thinking, 'I'm going to go watch Tiger.' And they had such a good time last year – 'Let's go out there again next year, whether he is there or not.' It's good for the event."
This article was written by Jeff Shain from The Island Packet Online and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.