A not-so-surprising weak field in Houston and other big things in golf

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

The situation that unfolded in Houston last week was inevitable. Not so much the feel-good story of Lanto Griffin winning his first PGA Tour event -- and finishing in the top 10 for the first time, too. Those kinds of tales are common in golf, perhaps more so when many of the big names in the game elect to stay home.

The weak field made for plenty of chatter at the Houston Open, the longtime tour event that was saved by Houston Astros owner and golf nut Jim Crane and moved to the fall from its traditional spring date prior to the Masters.

Tournament officials seemed surprised at the poor turnout of big names that produced a field with no players ranked among the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking and just two -- Henrik Stenson and Keegan Bradley -- among the top 50.

That meant the weakest field on the PGA Tour in a non-opposite event going back five years.

And yet, this really shouldn't be a surprise.

Time after time it is proved on the PGA Tour that the purse, venue and history are typically outweighed by the spot on the schedule. If the date is not appealing, the name players who have all manner of choices that include major championship events, World Golf Championship events and lucrative overseas events are going to skip it. It's as simple as that.

The Houston tournament happened to fall in the fifth week of what is now a long fall season of 10 possible tournament starts assuming a player is eligible for the upcoming Asian swing of three events, including a World Golf Championship tournament in China.

And if you are about to travel 12-some time zones away to Asia, doesn't it make sense that you would skip the tournament week in Houston that directly precedes it? Many did.

"I'm learning that in the fall, players are interested in chasing the big money internationally and playing overseas,'' tournament director Colby Callaway told Golf.com. "That's not up to me to figure that out, but up to the Tour to help out because there are tournaments here who are saying, 'What about us?' Hopefully we can force the Tour's hand to move us.''

Callaway might want to take a number and get in line. There are half a dozen or more tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule that are in a less-than-advantageous position as it relates to other tournaments. It is part of the struggle in balancing a commercial enterprise that depends on selling tickets and delivering television ratings to sponsors versus the need for the tour to provide playing opportunities to its members.

Changing the date of the Houston tournament doesn't address the fact that any event that lands in that spot is going to be faced with the same problem. Another solution is to have an off week, which of course goes against that playing opportunity mandate.

Something like this was bound to happen. That the first four weeks of the fall schedule -- Greenbrier, Sanderson Farms, Safeway and Shriners -- were not impacted to this degree and were generally well received with a mixture of big names and tour neophytes actually highlights a positive development in the overall big picture of tour scheduling. More players are recognizing that fall starts are necessary to keep pace in the long FedEx Cup season.

A week with poor field strength also provides opportunities for those not getting into events. Only the leading money winner from the Korn Ferry Tour Finals is fully exempt, meaning the rest of the 50 players who earned their "playing card'' fall into a priority category that is only 27th out of 39 such exemption criteria.

That list is reshuffled through the year based on results, but the bottom line is many of those players do not see tournament starts every week. So when an event with a weaker field comes along, those players are ecstatic. Hence, perhaps some names you didn't recognize.

Griffin might be one of them. At age 31, he had never finished in the top 10 in 32 previous PGA Tour starts. He made his way back to the PGA Tour this year based on his Korn Ferry Tour Finals finish just a few weeks ago.

Now he has a two-year exemption and an invitation to the Masters, among many other perks.

"Just thinking about it is an absolute joke, that I'm going to be there,'' Griffin said after his victory. "There's so many different things that I can't even fathom that are going to happen after this week.''

One of them could very well be that Griffin defends his title next year during a different week, which would go a long way toward appeasing one sponsor -- and potentially upsetting another.

The Asian swing

After a five-week run to start the 2019-20 season, three tournaments in Asia will provide the best fields of the fall, with players lured to the region by big-money, no-cut events, including the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.

The first two tournaments -- this week's CJ Cup in South Korea followed by next week's Zozo Championship in Japan -- feature 78-player fields with no cut and a whopping purse of $9.75 million. The winner will receive $1,170,000 and those who finish at the bottom of the leaderboard can expect in the neighborhood of $40,000.

With some hotel and travel expenses covered by the tournament, it is easy to see why these tournaments are popular.

Among those competing this week are defending champion Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, who is making his first tournament appearance since last playing at the BMW Championship in August. Phil Mickelson is also playing the South Korea event for the first time.

These tournaments are clearly for the "haves'' of PGA Tour golf. The fields are comprised of the top 60 available players from the 2018-19 final FedEx Cup standings down to a floor of 125. So if you were not an exempt player through last season, what you have done so far this season doesn't matter. Each tournament then invites 10 players from the corresponding Korean or Japan tours and has eight sponsor exemptions.

Tiger Woods long ago committed to the Zozo, the first official PGA Tour event in Japan, which will follow the skins game he is playing in Monday along with Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama. It will be a first look at Woods since he played his last PGA Tour event at the BMW Championship in August and subsequently had an arthroscopic knee procedure.

The WGC event in China will have a purse of $10.25 million with a similar setup: 78 players, no cut. The qualification criteria are more diverse, with players ranked among the top 50 in the world as of Monday eligible, along with winners of the various World Golf Championship events and top finishers on both the PGA Tour and European Tour.

Phil and the rankings

Prior to The Open at Royal Portrush, in a ceremony/news conference that was somewhat hastily arranged and awkwardly presented, Mickelson was presented an award by the Official World Golf Ranking for having been ranked among the top 50 in the world going back 25 years.

His run actually began at the end of 1993 and has continued all the way through to now. At one point in 2017, Mickelson had dropped to 49th but he fought his way back up the rankings, winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in 2018. Earlier this year, when Mickelson won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he was 17th.

And he has steadily fallen since. Mickelson has no top-20 finishes in 12 starts since tying for 18th at the Masters. He is now 47th heading into the South Korea tournament and has a chance to fall out of the top 50. He is also likely to play the WGC-HSBC Champions.

Bryson's fitness push

One player you won't see compete in Asia is Bryson DeChambeau, who has declared this next six-week stretch his "offseason'' in which he will spend time focused on getting stronger.

"Not necessarily bigger, but just stronger in general,'' DeChambeau said after he tied for fourth in Las Vegas, his third event of the fall. "I am going to look probably a lot bigger, but it's going to be a fun month and a half off. I have never been able to do this and I'm going to go do things that are going to be a lot of fun.''

As part of the fun, DeChambeau said he would be trying to make sure that his "neurological threshold is just as high as the mechanical threshold.''