Professional golf tours are the means by which otherwise unconnected professional golf tournaments are organised into a regular schedule. There are separate tours for men and women with each tour being based in a specific geographical region, although some tours may hold tournaments in other parts of the world.
Golf is one of the more lucrative sports in the world for both men and women, but has a very different structure from other sports (especially team sports). Almost all (at least 95%) professional golfers make their primary income as club or teaching professionals rather than competition. "Touring professionals", also known as "Tournament golfers" or "Pro golfers", who make their income from prize money and endorsements are a small elite within the profession. The very best golfers can make up to 8-figure incomes in U.S. dollars from tournament play alone. If endorsement income is taken into account, Tiger Woods was the highest earning sportsman in the world for much of the first decade of the 21st century according to Forbes magazine.
For the less successful professional, trying to make a living from tournament golf can be challenging as tournaments have entry fees and the associated costs of travel and lodging, plus the hire of a caddie. Moreover, most tournaments have a "cut" after the second of four rounds in which a minimum aggregate score is selected to eliminate roughly half the field and advance the remaining golfers into the final rounds. Of those players remaining, only some will take home significant winnings and those that missed the cut do not earn any prize money at all. Thus, after costs are taken into account, the lesser-known golfers struggling to make cuts and lacking endorsement contracts to supplement that income may find making a living off of tournament play to be a challenging task.
The golf tour system evolved more by trial and error than by design. In the early days of professional golf in each region of the world each professional tournament was established by a separate golf club, golf organisation or commercial sponsor. As the number of tournaments increased the most talented professional golfers concentrated mainly on playing in tournaments rather than on club professional and golf instruction work. Once a good number of tournaments were being played in a region each year they were formalised into a "tour", which was supervised by a single organisation, although individual tournaments continue to be run by separate bodies in many cases.
The PGA Tour was the pioneer of the tour system, and its establishment date is not very clearly defined. The PGA of America was established in 1916. Lists of players with the most wins in each season are available from that year, and career win totals are based on results from 1916 onwards. However the idea of a "tour" had not firmly crystallised at that time and several important developments came much later. Bob Harlow was named manager of the PGA Tournament Bureau in 1930, the first "playing pros" organisation was formed in 1932, and money lists are available from 1934. However the PGA Tour itself dates the formal establishment of the Tour to 1968, when the "Tournament Players Division" split from the PGA of America. The dates of establishment of the other key tours include: LPGA Tour (1950); European Tour (1972); Japan Golf Tour (1973); Asian Tour (1995). The term "circuit" is often used to describe professional tournament golf in the pre-Tour era in any given region. For example, before the foundation of the Asian Tour, tournaments in Asia were part of the "Asian circuit".
As professional golf has continued to expand developmental tours such as the Challenge Tour (1986) and the Web.com Tour (1990; originally called the Ben Hogan Tour), and senior tours such as PGA Tour Champions (1980; originally the Senior PGA Tour and later the Champions Tour) and the European Senior Tour (1992) have been established to give more golfers the opportunity to play on a tour, and to take advantage of the willingness of sponsors and broadcasters to fund an ever-increasing number of tournaments.
There are more than twenty professional golf tours, each run by a PGA or an independent tour organisation which is responsible for arranging events, finding sponsors, and regulating the tour. Most of the major tours are player controlled organisations whose commercial objective is to maximise the income of their members by maximising prize money. The larger tours have a tournament almost every week through most of the year.
Each tour has "members" who have earned their "tour cards", meaning they are entitled to play in most of the tour's events. A golfer can become a member of a leading tour by succeeding in an entry tournament, usually called a Qualifying School ("Q-School"); or, by achieving a designated level of success in its tournaments when competing as an invited non-member; or, much rarer, by having enough notable achievements on other tours to make them a desirable member. Membership of some of the lesser tours is open to any registered professional who pays an entry fee.
There are enormous differences in the financial rewards offered by the various golf tours, so players on all but the top few tours always aspire to move up if they can. For example, the PGA Tour, which is the first-tier tour in the United States, offers nearly a hundred times as much prize money each season as the third-tier NGA Pro Golf Tour. The hierarchy of tours in financial terms, as of 2014, is as follows:
In the 1990s the Japan Golf Tour was the third richest tour, but in recent years its number of tournaments has been steadily contracting from a peak of 44 in 1990 to 24 in 2007, and tournament purses have risen only slowly. The (U.S.) LPGA saw a substantial decline in financial rewards in the late 2000s; when its commissioner Carolyn Bivens was forced to resign by a player revolt in 2009, it had only 14 events locked in for 2010. Its 2010 schedule was ultimately unveiled with 24 events, down from 34 as recently as 2008. The tour saw signs of recovery in 2012, with the addition of three new events, the sanctioning of a tournament in Australia, and the return of one tournament that had been off the schedule for a year. By 2014, the LPGA had largely recovered from its 2010 trough, with that year's schedule consisting of 33 events.
The late-2000s economic crisis did not have an immediate impact on the PGA Tour, mainly because most of its tournament sponsors were locked in through 2010; there was media speculation that the expiration of those sponsorship contracts in 2011 would see substantial changes in the landscape of that tour. However, this speculation proved misplaced or at least premature, as the 2011 season was announced with only one less official money event than in 2010, with virtually identical prize money. The Asian Tour and the LPGA of Japan Tour enjoyed rapid growth in prize money in the early 2000s, and were less affected by the economic crisis than the U.S. LPGA.
The International Federation of PGA Tours is an organization founded in 1996 to enable the world's leading tours to discuss common and global issues in professional golf. The founding members were
In 1999 they were joined by the Asian Tour and a year later the Canadian Tour became an associate member. The South and Central America based Tour de las Américas became the federation's second associate member in 2007.
In 2009 the federation announced a major expansion, as the Tour de las Américas and the Canadian Tour became full members alongside nine new members. They were
In 2011, the Tour de las Américas was effectively taken over by the PGA Tour, then, after the Tour de las Américas held its 2012 season, it was folded into the new PGA Tour Latinoamérica. In October 2012, the Canadian Tour agreed to be taken over by the PGA Tour, with a name change to PGA Tour Canada taking effect that November.
World ranking points are also awarded for good placings in events on three developmental tours:
In addition, until 2017 the OneAsia Tour, founded in 2009 as a joint venture between the PGA Tour of Australasia, the China Golf Association, the Japan Golf Tour, the Korean Golf Association and the Korean PGA, used to offer world ranking points.
The richest tour that does not offer ranking points was until 2011 the Korean Tour. Below this level, the tours still do not offer ranking points, and the prize money on offer will be at a level that allows only a few of the members, or perhaps none of them at all, to make their main income from playing on that tour alone. Some of the players will also play on other tours when they are able to, and others will be club or teaching professionals who play tournament golf part-time.
The United States and Europe have additional tours for players who haven't made it onto the Korn Ferry Tour or the Challenge Tour. At this level the prize money is partly funded by entrance fees and only the most successful players will win enough to do more than cover their expenses: the emphasis is very much on moving up to a higher tour.
In Europe there is a well-defined third tier of tours which are independently operated but offer promotion to the Challenge Tour for the most successful players. The four third level tours, known as the Satellite Tours, are the PGA EuroPro Tour, the Alps Tour, the Pro Golf Tour and the Nordic Golf League. Starting July 2015, the four Europe-based third-tier tours will factor into the OWGR rankings. Below this level there are various minor professional tournaments, some of which are organised into series by national golf associations.
In 2016, the Dubai-based MENA Golf Tour announced an affiliation with the Sunshine Tour and was included into the world ranking system. Starting in 2018, the Sunshine Tour-affiliated Big Easy Tour was added to the world rankings.
Three lower-level tours offer world ranking points and direct promotion to the Korn Ferry Tour for a top five finish on their Orders of Merit, but they are based outside the United States: PGA Tour Canada, PGA Tour China, and PGA Tour Latinoamérica. There is not a well defined US-based third tier. The larger regional tours include the Swing Thought Tour, Gateway Tour, and the APT Tour there is a constantly changing roster of small "mini-tours".
The term mini-tour is colloquial and not easy to define, with the larger regional tours carefully avoiding applying the term to themselves. Some of the smaller and lower cost tours prefer the term "developmental tour" asserting that real pro golf with large audiences and great financial opportunities for its players starts at the Web.com Tour level.
Either way, below Korn Ferry Tour level there is little possibility of earning a living from the prize money alone and players compete to gain competitive experience. Some are employed as club or teaching professionals and play tournaments part-time, while some may have sponsors or family backing. After the new Korn Ferry Tour Finals was established in 2013, mini-tour purses have decreased and players have moved to the Canada and Latin American tours.
There have also been some well known sportsmen from other sports who, after retiring as wealthy men while still at an age when elite golfers are in their prime, have tried their luck as tournament golfers on the developmental tours, but none of them have made it into golf's elite so far. Examples include Ivan Lendl and Roy Wegerle. Two prominent professional athletes from other sports, however, have had modest success on the tour now known as PGA Tour Champions for golfers 50 and over. Former National Football League quarterback John Brodie won one tournament and had 12 top-10 finishes on that tour, and former Major League Baseball pitcher Rick Rhoden had three top-10 finishes.
Upon reaching age 50, male golfers are eligible to compete in senior tournaments. Golf is unique among sports in having high profile and lucrative competitions for players of this age group. Nearly all of the famous golfers who are eligible to compete in these events choose to do so, unless they are unable to for health reasons. A number of players win more than a million dollars in prize money each season, and once endorsements and other business activities are taken into account, a few of the "legends of golf" in this age group earn as much as any of the younger PGA Tour pros. The two main senior tours are:
Women's professional golf is also organised by independent regional tours. Leading female golfers make incomes well over US$1 million per year, more than most other women athletes other than top tennis players. There are currently six first tier regional tours:
The LPGA Tour is the dominant tour, and is the main playing base of almost all the world's leading players. It also has tournaments in Canada, Mexico, France, England, Australia, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and other Asian countries. The LPGA of Japan Tour is the second richest tour, and retains many of its leading players. The best players from the other tours usually move to the LPGA Tour at the earliest opportunity.
The second tier women's professional tour in the United States is the Symetra Tour. Although there is little opportunity for women's developmental play on the professional level in the United States besides the Symetra Tour, women are welcome to compete against men on some mini-tours. Sweden, which is the European country where women's golf is most popular, has its own SAS Masters Tour (formerly the Telia Tour). The Ladies European Tour Access Series, launched in 2010, is the developmental tour of Ladies European Tour. The LPGA of Japan operates the Step Up Tour as a feeder for its main tour, and the LPGA of Korea operates two mini-tours that effectively serve as feeders for its main tour.
In 2001 the U.S. based Women's Senior Golf Tour was founded, featuring golfers 45 and over. In 2006 it was rebranded as the Legends Tour. The LPGA of Korea now operates the Akia Tour, a four-event mini-tour for the same age group. The Moonlightgolf.com Tour in central Florida since 1992, offers women the opportunity to develop through frequent low cost pro/scratch events.