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30 years on, the Tour Championship has the heft it was designed to have

Those of us with enough years behind us to have witnessed the entire history of the Tour Championship have thoughts and impressions about what has fully become one of the PGA Tour’s premiere events.

Something that stood out to me at first, not all that favorably, was the commercialized nature of the tournament title for an event that was intended to be special and unique. The first year, in 1987, it was the Nabisco Championships of Golf. It wasn’t much better in 1988: Nabisco Golf Championships. Then the next two years it was shortened to Nabisco Championships.

Tom Watson celebrates the end of a winless drought at the 1987 Tour Ch.

Tom Watson celebrates the end of a winless drought at the 1987 Tour Ch.

The plural “championships” confused me. It was one marquee championship, not multiple. Of course, the tournament wasn’t utilized at the end of the season as it is now where it tops off a four-event playoff. Initially it was just a year-end event for the top elite money-makers, but I don’t think too many people thought the winner was the actual champion of the golf season. He was just the winner of a substantial money event, adding to an already excellent money year. The fact that Tom Watson, struggling to regain his dominant form and a nonwinner for three years, won the first playing gave the tournament immediate legitimacy and substance.

The focus of the event turned in 1991 when it was renamed the Tour Championship and went to Pinehurst No. 2. That made the purpose of the event clearer, but not fully. If the Players Championship was the tour’s self-proclaimed fifth major, the Tour Championship could not be considered above it and couldn’t really be thought of as the championship event of the tour season. Again, it just felt like another big-money, limited-field event helping the elite become more elite. It didn’t help that starting in 1995, sponsors once again peppered the title, among them Mercedes-Benz, Michelob, Southern Company, and Coca-Cola. The event was called the Tour Championship "presented" by one of those sponsors.

But we finally have arrived at simply the Tour Championship, and Coca-Cola and Southern Company are “proud partners.” In combination with the FedEx Cup playoffs since 2007, the Tour Championship now feels like an appropriate year-end conclusion and more than just a limited-field tournament that makes the rich richer. All the jostling for points to make it into the top 30 builds all year until the last week or two puts a real emphasis on who will sneak into the top 30 as well as focusing on those top players who might win the whole thing.

It has also helped that the championship settled nicely into venerable East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. This is the 14th straight year for East Lake and 17th overall. Its heritage of urban renewal, Bobby Jones and Donald Ross is a great way to showcase the tour’s best.

I’ve even warmed up to how the tour year now carries from one year to the next; not 100 percent, but the changing landscape required some adjusting. With the battle golf has always fought to compete for attention with the start of football season, working to get the year-end event out of the college and pro football morass is a sensible decision.

So, it’s been a great 30-year evolution. From 1987 to 2017, the Tour Championship has made quite the transformation to the type of concluding event it was intended to be.

Cliff Schrock