First-time winners reflect year of change on PGA Tour?

Jake Knapp, 29, is one of four first-time winners on the PGA Tour in 2024, winning the Mexico Open Feb 10 in a field noticeably lacking world-class players.

FORESTVILLE, NY – Forty-four. That is the percentage of first-time winners on the PGA Tour this season through the first nine tournaments. What was the percentage last season as the PGA Tour heads to TPC Sawgrass? Zero.

Interestingly enough there were two first time winners in the same week in 2023: Kurt Kityama at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Nico Echavarria at the Puerto Rico Open. There’s been speculation why this is the trend this season and whether it’s the right direction for the PGA Tour.

Nick Dunlap, Matthieu Pavon, Jake Knapp, and most recently Austin Eckroat are the four first-time winners on the PGA Tour this season. At this time in 2023, now LIV player Jon Rahm had already secured three PGA Tour victories. Other well-known names in the golf world had won as well including Scottie Scheffler, Justin Rose, and Max Homa. This year has done a complete 180 degree spin, where did all the “big names” go?

Most golf fans never heard of Austin Eckroat, 25, who registered his breakthrough PGA Tour victory March 4 at the Cognizant Classic.

In my opinion, professional golf is best described as a continuous revolving door of elite competition. There are over 200 players with Tour cards, and almost every player can lose their status in the span of one season. Each player is essentially fighting for their livelihood week in and week out and competition is at an all time high.

Golf is a sport that’s very difficult to stay on top. Like 42-year old David Skinns, who regained his tour card this season after losing it in 2022, finished T4 at the 2024 Cognizant Classic. Any player can get hot and have a chance to win down the stretch, but few can handle the mental pressure of playing in contention on a weekend. Only a small portion of players in the game can get to the top and stay there, continuously performing better than their opponents.

This has been the case on the PGA Tour for years, but recent changes to the game have made winning seem more achievable. Amateur and lower levels of professional golf have had a dramatic increase in competition, with the Korn Ferry Tour giving out 30 PGA Tour cards at the end of every season, and most recently PGA Tour U that bridges the gap between senior collegiate amateurs and professional players by giving the top player an automatic bid to the big league. Numbers 2-10 receive membership to the Korn Ferry Tour, and No. 11-25 go to the PGA Tour Americas. The simulation provided by the feeder leagues to the PGA Tour gives players the mental experience on and off the course that is required to perform on the big stage. Anyone that has earned their PGA Tour card through these smaller Tours has both the skills and mental perseverance to win early on in their careers; and it’s happening this season.

Scottie Scheffler is ranked World No. 1, but the OWGR system is flawed since LIV Golf players do not receive points for their golf achievements.

With LIV adding more big names to their roster like Jon Rahm, Tyrell Hatton, and a resurgent Anthony Kim, I have noticed engagement on social media regarding the status of the PGA Tour and how recent leaderboards this season have been filled with “no name” players. Here are a few comments from an instagram post from Dan Rapaport about recent winner Jake Knapp at the 2024 Mexico Open,

“Helluva leaderboard for the pga tour. Ready for the next LIV event to start to watch some real golf.”

“Can’t wait to repost this as a “this did not age well” when this guy vanishes back to the korn ferry. Who’s in this field again??”

The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass tees off March 14-17 with its weakest field in 50 years, begging the question why not invite the top-10 LIV Golf players to compete.

The Mexico Open at Vidanta did have the weakest player field on the PGA Tour this season with only three players in the top 40 Official World Golf Ranking. The drama and talent of a typical PGA Tour event was still there, coming down to an exciting Sunday finish between Jake Knapp and Sami Valamaki to see who would capture their first title.

The casual golf fan might miss the fact that PGA Tour players have schedules and they are not required to play each week. There are now 12 weeks where the top players in the world compete against each other with the four traditional major tournaments and the addition of the eight elevated signature events. Outside of this schedule, they get to pick and choose where and when they want to play to maximize their performance and rest their bodies. This creates weeks on the PGA Tour like the Mexico Open, where most top players are absent, and provides opportunities to players like Jake Knapp to change their career and punch their ticket to the remaining prestigious tournaments and secure their Tour card for another year.

This is what makes the PGA Tour and golf as a profession unique from any other sport. Every week is not a major and the pack of top names in the world will not always be competing against each other. New faces will rise and receive their time in the spotlight just as the Scottie Scheffler’s and Rickie Fowler’s of the game did in the past. It is a part of the process of the PGA Tour, and though big names in golf have left to play for LIV, the quality of play and level of competition has remained unchanged.

Jon Rahm, 29, and current Masters champion, jumped ship in December to LIV Golf in a stunning blow to the depth and quality and future of the PGA Tour.

Take Austin Eckroat’s win at the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches. The leaderboard was filled with players with no wins on Tour, like David Skinns (-13, 271), Min Woo Lee (-14, 270), and Cameron Young (-13, 271) all finishing in the top five. Over the past decade these total scores would have won nine out of the last 10 tournaments at PGA National. With favorable scoring conditions, Eckroat’s 17- under par total set the tournament scoring record by an impressive three strokes. The competition and player ability is there but critics of the game and tensions between the PGA Tour and LIV create a rocky embrace of the change in names we see atop on Sunday.

As fans of golf we should remember that the season is only a quarter of the way finished, with all four majors to play and four more signature events in the upcoming months. Change in any sport is inevitable, and it is exciting to see so many new players taking advantage of the opportunities that they have put themselves in. The only question left is how many more “firsts” will we witness on Tour in 2024?

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