Forged After a Tumultuous Era, World Golf Championships Fade in Another
AUSTIN, Texas — It was not all that long ago — Tom Kim, after all, is only 20 years old — but before Kim emerged as one of the PGA Tour’s wunderkinds-in-progress, he would watch the World Golf Championships.
“For sure, 100 percent,” Kim cheerfully reminisced as he clacked along this week at Austin Country Club, the site of the championships’ match play event. “There was W.G.C. in China. There was Firestone before. You had Doral. You had this.”
Had, because once one man wins on Sunday, the championships appear poised to fade away. An elite competition forged, in part, because of another era’s tumult has become a casualty of this one’s.
“Everything runs its course and has its time,” said Adam Scott, who has twice won W.G.C. events. Barring a resuscitation, which seems improbable given the PGA Tour’s business strategy these days, the W.G.C.’s time was 24 years.
The W.G.C. circuit was decaying before LIV Golf, the Greg Norman-fronted league that is cumulatively showering players with hundreds of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, cleaved men’s professional golf last year. Two W.G.C. events vanished after their 2021 iterations, and a third, always staged in China, has not been contested since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And as the PGA Tour has redesigned its model to diminish LIV’s appeal, even the Texas capital’s beloved match play competition has become vulnerable to contractual bickering and shifting priorities.
“We’ve had great events and great champions, but the business evolves and it adapts,” Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, said this month, when the tour reinforced its decision to wager its future on “designated events” that should command elite fields and, in some cases beginning next year, be no-cut tournaments capped at 80 players or less. (LIV, whose tournaments always have 48-man fields and no cuts, responded with a wry tweet: “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future.”)
With a $20 million purse, doubled in size from five years ago, the match play competition that began on Wednesday is a designated event under the 2023 model. Next year, though, it will not be on the calendar at all, winnowing the W.G.C. to one competition. And Monahan has said it would be “difficult to foresee” when his circuit’s schedule might again include the HSBC Champions, the W.G.C. event in China that will be the last remaining event formally existing in the series.
The Chinese tournament’s website has had few updates in recent years, and an inquiry with the event’s organizers went unanswered. HSBC, the British banking powerhouse that is the tournament’s title sponsor, declined to comment.
But the PGA Tour’s freshly calibrated distance from the Shanghai competition is fueling what looks to be an unceremonious end for the W.G.C., which were announced to immense fanfare in 1997, when the tour and its allies were smarting over Norman’s failed quest to start a global circuit for the sport’s finest players. The events, which debuted in 1999 with a match play event that sent some of the game’s best home after the first day, were intended to entice and reward the elite without challenging the prestige of the four major tournaments, as well as to give men’s professional golf a greater global footprint.
It worked for a spell, and five continents hosted W.G.C. events, many of which Tiger Woods dominated. With the exception of the Chinese tournament, though, the circuit had lately been played in North America.
“The ‘world’ part of the World Golf Championships wasn’t really in there,” Rory McIlroy, the four-time major tournament winner whose W.G.C. résumé includes a victory in the 2015 match play event, mused in an interview by the practice putting green.
McIlroy, among the architects of the tour’s reimagining as Norman’s unfinished ambitions proved more fruitful this time around, said he had also worried that the W.G.C. events had come to lack “any real meaning,” even as they had been “lovely to be a part of, nice to play in and nice to win.” The tour’s emphasis on select tournaments, many executives and top players like McIlroy believe, will lend more consequence to its season and make it a more appealing, decipherable and concentrated product that can fend off the assault by a LIV circuit bent on simplifying — its critics say diluting — professional golf.
“Your casual golf fan knows the majors, the Ryder Cup and maybe the events that are close to their hometown,” said McIlroy, who is among the players devising a new weeknight golf competition that is expected to start next year. “I get it: Professional golf is a very saturated market with a ton of stuff going on, and people have limited time to watch what they want to watch.”
The Austin tournament’s end will, at least for now, reduce match play opportunities on the circuits that have been aligned with the W.G.C. Though the Austin event — which has three days of group-stage play, followed by single-elimination rounds — has a field of only 64 players, less than half of the size of last year’s British Open, it has been larger and more accessible than other signature match play tournaments.
But given the format’s popularity, it will linger, if a little less, on the international golf scene. The Presidents Cup, Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup will remain fixtures — the Solheim will be contested in Spain in September, with the Ryder decided soon after in Italy — and more modest events, such as the International Crown women’s tournament that will be played in May, still dot the calendar.
Some players this week appeared more mournful than others about the erosion of the W.G.C. and the decline of match play. Scott said he hoped the tour’s new system would be able to accommodate the next generation of ready-for-stardom players from around the world, as the W.G.C. did, even as he said he was not insistent that match play be a staple.
“We don’t play much match play, so the kind of logic in me questions its place in pro golf, but also we’ve got to entertain as well, and if people like to see it and sponsors want to see it, yep, I’m up for it,” Scott said.
“Maybe we should have some more, get a bit more head-to-head and see if guys like each other so much after,” he offered mischievously. “The year of match play!”
The PGA Tour has not ruled out a return to the format, though it would assuredly be limited. LIV could also eventually try to tap into interest. At an event in Arizona last week, Phil Mickelson, a LIV team captain, said that match play was “certainly something that we are discussing as a possibility for the season-ending event.”
But the W.G.C. appear effectively finished. Kim, the youngest player this week, was delighted that he had arrived just in time.
“I played once before it all goes away,” said Kim, who has six top-10 finishes in his early tour career and expressed confidence in the circuit’s direction. “I played once in my life.”
He wandered off to practice. A round against Scottie Scheffler, the reigning match play champion and the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, loomed soon enough.