If the PGA Tour’s new participation rules have done anything at the WM Phoenix Open, they appear to have stabilized the field.
That may not have been the Tour’s intent, but the data suggests it was a principal outcome.
Of the 134 players who teed it up Thursday for the start of the first of the Tour’s so-called ‘designated events,’ 85 are returnees from last year’s field.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but that is a full 10 percentage points higher than the normal year-to-year returnee rate at a PGA Tour event.
The WM Phoenix Open is the first full-field ‘designated event’ of 2023.
It is the first of several such ‘designated events’ on the tour’s schedule.
The events are part of a Tour response to the threat posed by the Saudi-backed LIV Tour. Fields are about 20 slots smaller than usual, payouts are substantially larger, and the game’s top players are nudged – although not literally required – to show up.
The money difference is the most dramatic. The estimated $20 million purse is more than double last year’s $8.2 million distribution, and also more than twice the payout of any of the previously held 2023 events.
But the unintended consequence may be to lock in a higher percentage of familiar faces returning to the desert.
The returnee rate creates unusual stability for a 2023 Tour event, where the normal year-to-year fluctuations in participation have been multiplied by LIV defections.
As an example, at last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, only 60 of the 157 starters had also played there in 2022. That’s just a 38 percent return rate, way, way less than WM’s 63.4 percent rate.
Of the four previous full-field events contested so far in 2023, the highest previous return rate was just 55 percent at The American Express. The average was 49 percent.
Part of the reason, obviously, is the reduced size of the field. The WM field this year is between 12 and 23 places smaller than any of those other recent Tour events, making the opportunities more coveted. The greatly increased dollar value also has a lot to do with it.
There is, of course, one other potential explanation for the unusual degree of loyalty Tour players are showing to the WM. Maybe they just really like that particular event, with its unique ambiance and desirable location … supplemented, of course, by all that cash.
It isn’t difficult to build a case for that argument. All you have to do is look back at the turnover between the 2021 and 2022 WM Phoenix Open fields. In 2022, 83 of the 133 participants from 2021 returned for an encore shot at TPC Scottsdale.
That’s a 62.4 percent rate, and it came at a time when tournament purses were not appreciably bumped. Again for comparison’s sake, the normal year-to-year return rate at a full-field winter Tour event hovers under 50 percent.
That suggests the WM Phoenix Open has two things going for it.
The first is an unusual degree of player loyalty to the event itself. The second, of course, is all that new cash being funneled into it.