HERTFORDSHIRE, England – Tumultuous only begins to describe this time in golf: player defections from the PGA Tour to a rival series of events, subsequent suspensions, the albatross in the room concerning Saudi financing and the realization that this is the new reality.
The LIV Golf International Series kicked off outside London on Thursday and if you could peel yourself away from all of the disruptive forces that envelop its very being, the event itself came off quite well.
It’s fair to quibble about whether 54 holes is the best way to decide a tournament, if shotgun starts are suitable for professional golf, if a clamoring even exists for the team element that is part of the structure – and is destined to become more permanent when these tournaments evolve into a league.
The staging of the event was top-notch, modest if not boisterous crowds were on hand at Centurion Club, the course presented a more-difficult-than-expected challenge, and Charl Schwartzel left with a $4.75 million of the $25-million purse.
But golf suddenly finds itself in a place that might have been foreseeable but nonetheless has resulted in a tenuous situation that leaves the future of the game in some serious doubt.
The idea, going back years, in establishing an alternative to the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour was to attempt to bring the best players in the world together more frequently.
Greg Norman, the commissioner of the LIV Golf Series and CEO of LIV Golf Investments, has consistently described his efforts as “additive,’’ meaning he saw a way – and still does – for PGA Tour players to compete in both arenas.
But PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan made it clear Thursday in his memo to players that there would be no common ground. He said that all 17 PGA Tour members in the LIV Golf field were suspended and no longer eligible for PGA Tour tournament play. He noted that those who join in the future would be subject to the same penalties, which would include Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Pat Perez, who signed on in the past week.
That means we should not expect to see all the best players in any events other than the major championships. Monahan also said that the decision will include all tours sanctioned by the PGA Tour, as well as the Presidents Cup. Monahan wrote that the players “did not receive the necessary event and media rights releases’’ and that participating is “in violation of our Tournament Regulations.’’
Norman countered that the Tour was being “vindictive’’ and that “this is certainly not the last word on the topic. The era of free agency is beginning.’’
Norman said in an interview with SI.com/Morning Read on Saturday that LIV Golf is prepared to back players financially if there are lawsuits. “We will backstop them,’’ he said. Several players, including Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia, have resigned their PGA Tour memberships, saying they do not want to be involved in any legal action and simply prefer to walk away. Phil Mickelson is keeping his PGA Tour status because he believes his lifetime membership should prevail.
Next is the U.S. Open, where the year’s third major championship begins Thursday at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the specter of this rival league hovering over the proceedings as several players who were in England will be competing in the tournament.
This suggests some messy, awkward, volatile times ahead, with no crystal ball to determine in the outcome. A few topics to consider as to how this might impact various aspects of the game.
The USGA released a statement last week in which it said it will not prohibit players from competing in the U.S. Open due to their affiliation with the LIV Golf Invitational Series.
“We pride ourselves in being the most open championship in the world and the players who have earned the right to compete in this year’s championship, both via exemption and qualifying, will have the opportunity to do so,’’ the USGA said. “Our field criteria were set prior to entries opening earlier this year and it’s not appropriate, nor fair to competitors, to change criteria once established.’’
The R&A has not commented but it is expected that next month’s British Open will operate in the same manner. The question is if either organization will change its criteria for those competing in the LIV series to make it more difficult to qualify.
Then there is the Masters and the PGA Championship. The Masters is an invitational that has changed its qualifying criteria many times over the years but has always invited its past champions to compete – except for an awkward time in the early 2000s when chairman Hootie Johnson sent “a letter’’ to aging past champions suggesting they no long compete. That idea was eventually dropped.
Would the Masters go down the road of not inviting past champions who are involved in LIV Golf? That list includes Johnson, Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel and Patrick Reed – who was announced as the latest to join on Saturday.
“I’ve definitely talked to them but you’re going to have to ask somebody from the Masters,’’ Johnson said. “I can’t comment on anything they have said.’’
At the Masters, chairman Fred Ridley said the tournament did not “dis-invite’’ past champion Mickelson, who elected not to play. But when asked about the potential for the rival leagues, he said. “We have been pretty clear in our belief that the world tours have done a great job in promoting the game over the years. Beyond that, there’s so much that we don’t know about what might happen or could happen that I just don’t think I could say much more beyond that.”
The PGA of America is probably the most closely-aligned major organization with the PGA Tour. The two organizations have worked together in recent years to change the FedEx Cup schedule. Aside from the Official World Golf Rankings and exemptions given to major winners, the PGA Championship field is very heavily skewed toward PGA Tour players.
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At the PGA Championship last month, CEO Seth Waugh acknowledged the disruption that LIV Golf would pose.
“I think we’ve got a lot of time between now and Oak Hill (site of the 2023 PGA), and I think we all have to sort of take a deep breath, see how it plays out, and what the ecosystem looks like at that point.
“As I’ve said, we’re a fan of the current ecosystem and world golf ranking system and everything else that goes into creating the best field in golf. Right now, I don’t know what it’ll look like next year. We don’t think this is good for the game and are supportive of that ecosystem. We have our own bylaws that we will forward toward those fields.”
Waugh added: “Our bylaws do say that you have to be a recognized member of a recognized Tour in order to be a PGA (of America) member somewhere, and therefore eligible to play. If something else became one of those, obviously we’d have to recognize it.’’
DP World Tour
The former European Tour and the PGA Tour formed a “strategic alliance” at the end of 2020 but so far, they’ve not been aligned as it relates to LIV Golf. While the PGA Tour has been public about its threat of suspending players, the DP World Tour has remained quiet.
Players who have DP World Tour status are unsure at this point if they will be able to play in upcoming tournaments. Germany’s Martin Kaymer, for example, said he expects to play in his home country’s BMW International Open in two weeks. But he has not been given any official word.
“I haven’t heard anything,’’ said Kaymer, the 2014 U.S. Open champion. “I’m planning to play in Munich.”
Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup
The fallout will severely impact the Presidents Cup and could have an effect on the Ryder Cup. Monahan said players who participate in the LIV Golf Series won’t be eligible for the Presidents Cup later this year at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. International captain Trevor Immelman has now seen four possible members of his team – countrymen Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Schwartzel as well as Australia’s Matt Jones – declared ineligible.
Players’ status for the Ryder Cup is also in doubt due to the affiliation.
“I don’t think it’s fair how they can say you can’t be eligible to be picked for a team when that team gets picked on world rankings, that’s the only thing that they get picked on, the world ranking criteria,’’ Grace said. “So, I can’t see how they can put it in. I know it’s the PGA Tour’s event, but then they should change the whole thing.’’
Grace said he has yet to speak to Immelman about but was told through Jones that “it’s not looking good but he’s doing to fight it. At the end of the day, he wants the best team playing for him and trying to beat the Americans. I think he’s going to fight for it to get the best team out there.’’
The next-best thing to a major will apparently go on without some of the best players. Garcia, Mickelson and Kaymer are past champions. Johnson would also not be eligible, nor would Lee Westwood or Ian Poulter or Kevin Na.
Official World Golf Ranking
Norman said LIV Golf will formally submit its bid to the OWGR in hopes of its events becoming sanctioned and offering points. This is the easiest way for players who participate to have a chance to be eligible for the majors. Without it, paths become much more harrowing, as without the ability to play on the PGA Tour – or possibly the DP World Tour – their points standing would dwindle and some would find themselves unable to qualify.
Another potential issue is the conflict of interest inherent in the ranking. The PGA Tour and DP World Tour along with all four major championships are part of the board of directors.
“We have talked to the technical committee (of the OWGR) and will put our application in front of them,’’ Norman said. “Our strength of field is stronger than many tours in the world. The technical committee will review it and hopefully we’ve checked all the boxes, then it goes to the board for approval. There are more players coming and that strength will get better so it’s hard to see how you can deny it.’’ The process promises to be interesting.
Mickelson is scheduled to meet the media on Monday at The Country Club at the start of U.S. Open week. The six-time major winner missed the first two majors this year while he spent four months away from the game. He hardly appeared sharp at the LIV Golf event. After a respectable opening-round 69, Mickelson finished with scores of 75-76 to shoot 10-over par, 17 shots back of Schwartzel. He finished 34th, which meant $146,000.
Premier Golf League
The organization that started down the path of a rival league eight years ago and gained serious traction before the coronavirus pandemic was once comprised of many of the same people that are part of the LIV Golf group. They split later in 2020, and LIV managed to get to the starting line.
PGL has since pivoted to a plan that would see its 54-hole, no-cut tournaments incorporated into the PGA Tour schedule. The plan is to have 18 such events.
Andy Gardiner, the CEO of the PGL, did not attend the LIV event but watched it from his home in London. And he came away encouraged, even though it is not his group involved.
“It showed the potential if done properly,” Gardiner said. “The short answer it has already helped us. The fear is it will create a permanent schism (in the game). But that’s what is helping. We can fix that if (the PGA Tour) don’t take too long.’’
Gardiner has put forth a detailed plan to the PGA Tour and its membership that would provide considerable equity in the league and payments of up $2 million per member, with Korn Ferry Tour and DP World Tour players getting lesser payments. It’s not LIV money but it would be part of the PGA Tour, offering a series of events that pay out big sums each week while also adding some of the new concepts that LIV has introduced.
Whether that gains any traction remains to be seen. How much traction LIV Golf gains with its next event scheduled for June 30-July 2 in Portland, Ore., will be fascinating to follow.
Golf has endured some rough times of late and things figure to not get any smoother for the foreseeable future.