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The World Golf Championships dead at 24: 'Everything has changed'

Golf Channel 3/21/2023 Rex Hoggard
© Provided by Golf Channel

AUSTIN, Texas – The World Golf Championships — a bold concept born from the threat of a potential rival league led by Greg Norman (sound familiar?) — have died. They were 24.

Technically, the concept will linger for a few more days with this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play set to mark the unofficial swansong, and PGA Tour officials will also point out the circuit is under contract to continue playing the WGC-HSBC Champions, but that event hasn’t been held since 2019 and it doesn’t seem the circuit is heading back to China any time soon.

“We've not played [in China] in three years, and it's difficult to foresee when we would play. Part of the decision we're making as it relates to the WGC-Dell Match Play is a result of that,” commissioner Jay Monahan said earlier this month. “Right now, you see the direction the PGA Tour’s heading in. It is with these designated events; it's with the concentration of the best players on the PGA Tour competing in them, I really don't expect that to change as we go forward.”

Matches and tee times from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship

For most, this week is the end of an era that began in 1999, when then-commissioner Tim Finchem’s plan for what he originally called “world championship events” began with the Match Play in February at La Costa, just north of San Diego. Jeff Maggert won that first WGC, cashing a princely $1 million winner’s check, followed by Tiger Woods’ victory six months later at the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone and again later that fall at the WGC-American Express Championship in Spain. Woods played 46 WGCs in his career and won 18 of them, which is the most efficient way to assess the relative success of the World Golf Championships. Top players competing more often for large purses – check, check and check.

Finchem’s grand plan to gather the game’s best more often at big-budget events (again, sound familiar?) was, with notable distinctions, a 2 ½-decade success, but the more pressing question as the WGCs inch toward their ultimate demise is how they arrived at this ending.

Theories vary wildly with many pointing out that the Tour’s move to designated events this year made the WGCs expendable, but those who have watched the championships evolve say the end began to manifest itself long before LIV Golf forced the Tour’s hand.

Perhaps the most notable change was how purses have evolved. When the WGCs launched in1999, their purses were $5 million, which was nearly double ($2.75 million to $3 million) that of a regular Tour event. But that gap has been narrowed in recent years, and with the advent of the designated events this season, there are six tournaments, not including the majors, with purses the same size or more ($20 million) than this week’s WGC-Match Play.

“When the purses on the PGA Tour started getting bigger, the WGCs pretty much stayed the same, they weren’t that much bigger,” Billy Horschel said. “Guys would say, ‘I don’t really want to go to China [for the HSBC Champions],’ it might be $2 million more in the purse, but it wasn’t worth their time to travel that far. Same for Mexico and same for the Match Play. Once the top players stopped supporting the WGCs, that started the downfall.”

The economic realities factored heavily into how the WGCs evolved. The knock has been that officials regularly ignored the “world” part of the WGCs and played the majority of the championships in the United States. Other than the HSBC Champions, which was added to the rotation in 2009, the events have ventured outside the “friendly confines” just a few times. The American Express was the most vagabond of all the WGCs, with eight different homes in five different countries, including a decade-long run at Doral in south Florida.

There is also some irony that the WGCs, born from a threat of a rival world tour led by Norman, were victims of another existential threat led by Norman – LIV Golf. To answer the challenge from the Saudi-backed league, the Tour created “designated” events this season and unveiled a blueprint for next year that will only further engrain the concept.

Some also point to the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted global travel and took the HSBC Champions event out of the rotation, as the first domino that began the WGCs’ downfall.

“The pandemic had a big kind of hit with it. Prior to that, with not having [Firestone] on the schedule, I feel like that was very much a staple WGC,” Rickie Fowler said. “But, yeah, they have kind of run their course.”

Mostly it was time for a change. As Monahan explained at The Players, “the business evolves, and it adapts.” Specifically, the Tour needed to take the WGC concept, limited fields with large purses, and refine the field to reflect an unrivaled model.

“The part that didn't make a lot of sense to me about the WGCs was all the other tours that were out here. I always found that part to be a little bit interesting,” world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler said. “When I was coming off the Korn Ferry Tour, and I looked at some of the fields in the WGCs and they were getting guys from, I hate to pick on the Sunshine Tour, but Sunshine Tour, like Australia, Asian Tour. There were a lot of ancillary tours out there that were getting into these events, and I was like, well, I'm playing here in the States and I'm playing really good. Like, we should also get an opportunity.”

While this week’s WGC-Match Play relies entirely on the world ranking to fill the field, the other WGCs were more inclusive of the global community, with top players from various circuits around the world. It was part of the original model to be more inclusive that doesn’t fit with the current star-driven reality.

“If you’re the PGA Tour, you want PGA Tour members playing those events. These [WGCs] are not,” said Adam Scott, who is third on the all-time WGC starts list with 61. “When you go back to the early 2000s, the market is going to dictate where events are held, and they almost always ended up basically in the States. It kind of didn’t evolve into anything bigger than the original four World Golf Championships. It ran its course. Everything has changed since it started.”

The WGCs will go quietly this Sunday. A champion will be crowned, and the Tour will move on – everything has changed.

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