SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – As has been the case at all of the LIV Golf Invitational Series events to date, it was a quiet scene on Thursday, with only a smattering of spectators allowed on site at Rich Harvest Farms.
That is by design, as tournament organizers have chosen to focus their events on the competitive rounds in what is being called a “beta test’’ year as LIV Golf will transition to a 14-tournament schedule in 2023. After Thursday’s pro-am, the real thing begins Friday.
As you may have heard, these tournaments are contested over 54 holes.
And that has been the subject of considerable derision, debate, defending … you name it.
Rory McIlroy, who won the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup three weeks ago, has taken pleasure in mocking the format on more than one occasion, saying after the Tour Championship that “on the 70th hole is a nice time to take the lead of a golf tournament … or the 52nd if you play somewhere else.’’
He went down a similar path last week at the DP World Tour’s PGA BMW Championship, where 15 LIV players competed—much to McIlroy’s dismay.
“My opinion is they shouldn’t be there, but again that’s just my opinion,’’ he said. “But we are all going to tee it up on the first tee and we are all going to play 72 holes, which is a novelty for them at this point, and then we’ll go from there.’’
Asked what he thought about the potential of a matchup with a LIV player on the final day, McIlroy said “I’ll be trying to win a golf tournament regardless. They are going to be pretty tired on Sunday, it will be their fourth day.’’
And on it goes …
Except during the first round, Queen Elizabeth II’s death was announced, play was halted for the day, postponed on Friday and then canceled altogether prior to the resumption of the tournament on Saturday—and the announcement that the tournament would be shortened to 54 holes.
And the LIV Golf supporters on social media could not wait to pounce.
That means it’s not a legitimate tournament?
Now they should not get world ranking points?
The irony clearly was not lost, and while those arguments were not correct, there certainly is reason to consider what all the fuss is about.
First, let’s make one thing clear: 72 holes of stroke play has long been the accepted way to determine the best player for that week. All the major championships are played in that manner and have been for decades.
All of the major professional golf tours play 72-hole events, or at least a majority of them are contested that way. Even developmental tours such as the Korn Ferry Tour and Challenge Tour do so.
LIV Golf came along this year and plans to play a 14-tournament league schedule in 2023. All of the events, at least for now, are scheduled for 54 holes (the team championship to conclude the 2022 season is for now slated to be a match play event with four days of competition.)
The disruptive nature of LIV Golf has meant plenty of pushback and the 54-hole tournament format has drawn considerable ire. And, at least in the court of public opinion, it has not helped in LIV’s quest to get Official World Golf Ranking points for its tournaments.
All of which leads to some questions.
Are 54 Holes Less Competitive?
There are numerous tournaments that have been played over just 54 holes, due to various circumstances.
The BMW PGA was hardly any less competitive because the event was shortened. Shane Lowry’s victory over McIlroy—who narrowly missed a tying eagle putt—served up plenty of drama. Nobody afterward was complaining that the event was not 72 holes.
“I do see the appeal other people see towards LIV Golf,’’ 2021 U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm said earlier this year. “I do see some of the points and arguments they could make toward why they prefer it. To be honest, part of the format is not really appealing to me. Shotgun (starts), three days, to me, is not a golf tournament—no cut. It’s that simple. I want to play against the best in the world and a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see.’’
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Rahm shares the belief of many, but does that necessarily mean it is not as competitive? “How can this not be competitive when the winner is playing for $4 million?’’ Pat Perez both shouted and asked at the last event outside of Boston.
In his Hall of Fame career, Sam Snead—who set the record since tied by Tiger Woods with 82 PGA Tour victories—was credited with one win for an 18-hole event, four for 36 holes and two for 54 holes. He also has five team titles among his official victory total.
There has long been debate about Snead’s record due to the team victories and those contested over just 18 and 36 holes. But nobody has suggested there is an issue with the 54-hole tournaments.
Are 54 Holes Less Historic?
It is interesting to note that neither the British Open nor the U.S. Open began as 72-hole tournaments. It was a long time ago, and perhaps not relevant in today’s argument, but there was no decree that 72 holes become the norm. It just sort of happened—and was accepted. The original Open at Prestwick was played over a 12-hole course consisting of three loops for 36 holes. First played in 1860, the Open didn’t go to 72 holes until 1892.
The U.S. Open was played over 36 holes for three years before going to 72 holes in 1898. The PGA Championship began as a match play event in 1916, not going to 72-hole stroke play until 1958. And the Masters, which began in 1934, was among the first to spread 72 holes over four days. Both the U.S. Open and British Open used to play 36 holes on the final day in the 1960s.
Are 54 Holes Unique Today?
The NCAA in 2011 went to a 54-hole format to determine an individual champion, which then decides the eight teams that compete in match play for the team title. Nobody seems concerned that the individual winner is playing just 54 holes. The PGA Tour Champions, except for the major championships, plays 54-hole events without cuts and has done so since its inception in 1980. For years, the LPGA Tour has seen 54-hole events with a 36-hole cut dot its schedule. This year there are three.
LIV Golf officials say they simply are looking at an alternative way to present their product. Nobody is suggesting it is better. It’s different and has some positives for fans and those involved in putting on a tournament. LIV, the roman numeral for 54, is also said to be tied to the “perfect score’’ if a player birdies all 18 holes on a par-72 course.
Greg Norman, LIV’s CEO and commissioner, has said “we are putting forth a different platform.’’ Clearly, staging events over three days is part of it.
What About the Shark?
Norman is often chided for not winning more than the two Open championships he captured in a Hall of Fame career that included numerous other major-championship close calls—he lost four in playoffs.
In 1986, he famously held or shared the lead through 54 holes of each major, going on to win only the Open at Turnberry. He is certainly easy fodder when it comes to the 54-hole argument.
And yet that doesn’t take into account that every player’s mindset would be different if the tournament were shorter. Sure, Norman had a six-shot lead after 54 holes of the 1996 Masters before losing it to Nick Faldo on the final day.
But if the tournament were only three rounds, does that mean he easily would have won it? He held a four-shot lead after 36 holes and managed to stretch it to six. Who knows how he, or others, would have reacted with only one day to play instead of two.
The PGA Tour’s Mandate
At weekly Tour events, the goal is to exhaust every opportunity to play 72 holes. With a weekly schedule, the idea of shortening a tournament to 54 holes due to weather is in play, but rarely executed. The last time the PGA Tour saw a tournament shortened was the 2016 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, won in a playoff by Brian Stuard.
The Tour has weather guidelines which allow for the shortening of a tournament to 54 holes if less than half the field does not complete a Monday round when an event has been extended. But PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan issued a statement during this year’s Players Championship that waived that rule and would have required a Tuesday finish to complete 72 holes. It is the same for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Although the DP World Tour has seen tournaments shortened to 54 holes twice in the last month, it is rare on the PGA Tour. (It has never happened at a major championship scheduled for 72 holes.) It has happened just four times over the past 15 years—one of which was the 2011 Barclays, a FedEx Cup playoff event that was shortened to 54 holes due to a hurricane. Dustin Johnson, now a part of LIV Golf, was the winner.
Will 54 Holes Ever Be Accepted?
Perhaps the biggest knock against LIV Golf and the 54-hole concept is the awarding of ranking points by the Official World Golf Ranking.
The OWGR doesn’t comment on an application but various sources have said there are 15 criteria which a tour must meet to get points. Having a majority of 72-hole events with cuts is one of them.
Why did the BMW PGA Championship award full points? Because it was a scheduled 72-hole event that was reduced due to unforeseen circumstances. Why are there some obscure tours that have 54-hole events that offer points? Because they are either part of a larger tour that also has 72-hole tournaments or they are developmental tours with a very small points distribution.
The OWGR’s mysterious guidelines actually don’t say anything about 72-hole events. They simply state that a tournament must be at least 54 holes—but with a cut after 36 holes. Events on the PGA Tour without cuts are offered points because they are part of a larger circuit that does have cuts.
Clearly, there is some gray area in the interpretation.
And perhaps LIV Golf might be better served if it bumped up several of its tournaments to 72 holes, had a 36-hole cut—let those who miss still participate in the team competition—and removed a big target.
For now, it will continue to face ridicule for choosing this path, one that nonetheless has led to a fifth LIV Golf Invitational Series event this week with more to come.
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