PHOENIX, AZ – The PGA TOUR wraparound season has already begun, but there’s still one more 2018 champion to crown. The competition for the PGA TOUR Champions Charles Schwab Cup has been intense all season, and the winner will be crowned at the upcoming, season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship that will be held at Phoenix Country Club, November 5-11, 2018.
Under a new format this year, points will not reset prior to the tournament. Instead, double points will be awarded in the two playoff events leading up to the finale. Double points will also be awarded for the Championship tournament, theoretically opening up the competition for the Cup to more golfers. The tournament finale has also been expanded from a 36-hole event to a four-day 72-hole event, with a full-field pro am on Wednesday.
The field, beginning with 72 players in the first playoff event, will be narrowed to 54 for the second, and then to the final top 36 golfers who will compete for the Championship and the Cup in Phoenix.
Recently, defending Championship and Charles Schwab Cup winner Kevin Sutherland, and two-time Charles Schwab Cup winner Tom Lehman, visited Phoenix to generate some tournament buzz. They were joined by PGA TOUR Champions President Greg McLaughlin, who facilitated a wide-ranging discussion about the new playoff format, Ryder Cup predictions, and the Phoenix Country Club venue, host to the tournament for the second consecutive year.
Lehman, winner of the 1998 Open Championship 2010 Senior PGA Championship, remains fiercely competitive at the age of 59. He spoke about wanting to move up the points list and better his position prior to the playoffs in order to be comfortably in the top 36. He admits that it’s been a bit of a struggle at times.
“My play this year, it’s been a little bit erratic,” he said. “The older I get, the more up and down I am. I’m still pretty good when I play well and a little bit worse when I play poorly.”
A win at the weather-shortened Principal Charity Classic in June, and nine top 10 finishes have landed him at #15 on the points list going into the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, the first of the three-tournament playoff events.
Defending Championship and Cup winner Kevin Sutherland is in good shape to attempt a repeat. The 54-year old California native is a top-10 machine and is currently #14 on the list, with eight top 10s this season. His sole PGA TOUR Champions victory was last year’s Schwab Cup Championship. He entered the 2017 tournament at #5, with 15 top-10s, and the Championship win was enough to knock the Cup out of the hands of Bernhard Langer, who had notched seven wins and was aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup.
Langer, of course, is enjoying yet another exceptional year and enters the playoffs comfortably atop the Schwab Cup leaderboard.
Lehman talked about the growth of PGA TOUR Champions, and stressed that it’s not just a walk in the park for the over-50 pros.
“The competition’s tough,” he said. “The TOUR just keeps getting stronger and stronger and it’s more difficult to win. You have to play extremely well to win.”
Sutherland emphatically seconded that, adding, “The play out here is amazing. If you’re not on your game for every round you play, someone is going to be passing you; maybe more than one.”
He went on to describe what it takes to win at Phoenix Country Club. The 6,763-yard, par 71 course underwent a major redesign by Tom Lehman and architect John Fought in 2002.
“You need to drive the ball really straight here. If you drive the ball straight, it really sets up for you shoot really good scores. I tell you what, I love it. I think it’s a course that’s universally loved by the players. I think Tom did a really great job redoing it.”
Sutherland, who was accompanied to Phoenix by his son Keaton, shared a touching story about his teenager looping for him in the final round in the Senior Open at St. Andrews.
“I asked my caddy Billy Lewis about it and he said ‘I think it’s a great idea.’ Of course, the forecast was really bad,” he said with a laugh. “For me, as a father, what a treat to have your son caddy for you at St. Andrews. Walking down 18 at the Old Course with your son, it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
According to executive director Tiffany Nelson, several improvements will enhance the fan experience this year. They include additional hospitality opportunities, more shade/umbrella coverage both out on the course and in hospitality areas, and possibly double decker hospitality structures.
Because of the compact nature of the traditional, downtown Phoenix course, attendance will be capped at 10,000 per day to preserve spectator comfort and viewing. (In contrast, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, held at TPC Scottsdale, set a one-day Saturday attendance record of 216,000 last year.) Building on last year’s success, which included a surprising number of daily walk ups, Nelson anticipates reaching milestones in attendance and sellouts.
In May, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship announced a new 10-year agreement with Phoenix Country Club to host the playoff finale through 2027. Nelson’s tournament committee has been working on a short-, mid- and long-range plans that will no doubt address maximizing revenue opportunities, while maintaining a positive fan experience.
Last year’s event had just a touch of the Waste Management atmosphere on Saturday, with beer gardens packed to capacity, but far better behaved crowds. It will be interesting to see what, if any, challenges arise with increased popularity and attendance.
While she expects dramatic attendance growth, Nelson insists that no changes will be made in security procedures. For those unfamiliar with Phoenix Country Club, it is probably the closest that fans ever get to players. Pros, patrons and caddies all share the same walkways and cart paths, giving the event a uniquely intimate environment/.
“We will never take away the access to the players,” said Nelson. “That’s something that makes PGA TOUR Champions unique, that opportunity for the spectators to get up close and personal with the professionals.”
Sutherland is just fine with that, noting “The camaraderie among the player and the fans, this is just a different level here.”
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