NORTON — The PGA Tour’s annual visit to TPC Boston tees off Friday, the 15th year in a row that the world’s best golfers will knock it around here amid the autumn-tinged flora and fauna of southern New England.
“One of the best-attended and best-supported events of the year,” said an enthusiastic Rory McIlroy, who has copped two titles here, including a two-stroke win last year over Paul Casey. “Always a good atmosphere. The guys like to play here.”
Yet with the Tour poised to give its overall tournament schedule a significant nip and tuck in 2019, speculation has arisen anew that the PGA might choose not to return to TPC Boston after 2018. The driving force: The PGA Tour’s ever-increasing desire to wrap up its schedule each year before football, particularly the NFL, kidnaps the TV viewing public in the hours immediately following Labor Day weekend.
“It’s very much up in the air,” noted Jordan Spieth, who is among the small clutch of top PGA players who help shape the thinking of Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “There’s still the chance that we would [play] up here every other year or something. So there’s still a lot of options available. There’s not much set in stone right now.”
In making its options public in early August, the PGA Tour announced it stands ready to shift the playing order of two of its tournaments, including its showcase PGA Championship (one of the four majors). Its championship event would flip from August to May, and the Players Championship from May to March.
All of it, noted Tour reps, would make for a better interface for its players come Olympic time — the next Summer Games set for Tokyo, July 24-Aug. 9, 2020. The announcement immediately triggered speculation that it might be ideal for the FedEx Cup playoffs, stage 2 a staple at TPC Boston, to wrap up Labor Day weekend with the annual Tour Championship in Atlanta.
For all that to happen, conventional wisdom likely would dictate the FedEx Cup trim its playoffs from four tournaments to three. The stop at TPC Boston, sponsored for the first time this year by Dell Technologies, would be the likely casualty. One possible scenario, as Spieth might have been hinting, would have Boston placed in a rotation to share playoff dates with New York and Chicago, bringing the PGA back to Boston for an August FedEx stop every third year.
“I think a shortened, condensed season ending before football is better for us,” added Spieth, “because it gives us an opportunity to have these end-of-the-season events that are big events for us — our playoff race and our Tour Championship. And it’s not competing with football, and it can significantly help grow the sport. It can bring it to the common sports fan that would watch football over golf . . . which I would, as well.”
If the Boston stop were dropped, it would be the second time that the Bay State has become a PGA orphan. The pros began to play regularly at Pleasant Valley in Sutton in the 1960s, beginning with the Carling World Open in ’65.
Play at Pleasant Valley continued with the Avco Classic, in 1969 and ’70, the start of an unimpeded run of annual stops by the big boys that didn’t end until 1998 with the CVS Charity Classic. It was another five years before the PGA finally returned with the first tournament at TPC Boston in 2003.
“No specifics about the 2019 schedule,” said Rich Brady, who has been the executive director at the TPC Boston stop since 2010. “There’s a lot of variables at play before that schedule is ultimately released. Our sole focus has been on this year’s tournament. We’ll start to plan next year’s tournament after this one is done, but we want this to be a great experience for Dell’s first time out.”
The previous sponsor, Deutsche Bank, worked through rumors of schedule changes in previous years, noted Brady.
“As far as the future is concerned,” he added, “again, a lot of variables, but nothing specific, and we are just going to continue to think about what is ahead of us.”
This year’s Tour Championship, where the FedEx Cup’s $10 million bonus is awarded each year, will end Sept. 24 at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. That same day, the Patriots will face Houston in Foxborough in a 1 p.m. kickoff. It will be Game 3 of the Patriots’ 16-game schedule. Given a choice of Patriots or PGA, most every New England would say, “We’re on to Houston.”
The PGA, in announcing the proposed changes in August, pointed toward the Olympic Games as much of the impetus behind its thought process. But should the schedule changes be finalized, and the TPC Boston stop potentially be put in peril, it will be the behemoth NFL, along college football dominating TV viewing on Saturdays, that truly drove the decision.
Until further notice, football is king of the airwaves, and pro golf is one more institution that must make accommodations around that truth behind the Shield.
“As far as what they are maybe going to do with the playoffs,” said Dustin Johnson, this year’s top money earner with $8.392 million, “I think it’s a really good move for the Tour not to have to compete against football. Because our ratings drop a lot once football starts, especially on Sundays — Saturdays and Sundays. That’s just going to happen.”
By the time football season is starting, noted Johnson, the viewing audience has had little else to watch for weeks other than golf.
“I mean, I don’t blame them for watching football,” added Johnson, “because I probably would be, too.”
Keegan Bradley on Friday will be playing for a sixth time in this tournament. A proud Vermonter, he played high school golf in nearby Hopkinton and has a special affection for a tournament that comes each year to his old backyard. He is a proponent of the proposed changes to the overall schedule, but he remains among the pros who would like TPC Boston not to suffer the consequences.
“It would be a huge bummer — I think a lot of the guys would be bummed out about that,” said Bradley, who has finished in the top 20 three of the five times he’s played at TPC Boston. “Unfortunately, we don’t have much say, but I know the players love this tournament. We look forward to coming here each year.”
Financially, noted Bradley, it make sense for the schedule to steer clear of football. An earlier end to the schedule, he added, also would allow players to build a needed respite into their intense playing schedules.
“But I’d be disappointed,” he said, considering the potential casualty to a tournament that has enjoyed a healthy 14-year run at the end of Arnold Palmer Boulevard. “It would be a bummer. I want to come here very year. We love it here. Hopefully, they can figure out a way.”Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.