What’s up With the PGA vs. Liv Golf Controversy?

What’s Up With the PGA vs. Liv Golf Controversy?

It’s a viable assumption: Where the money is, the players will follow.

In its simplest form, this sums up tensions between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. The PGA, nearly a century old and the sport’s standard, is in one corner. In the other, LIV Golf. Newer than Patrick Cantlay’s FedEx Cup trophy, it’s an endeavor that has drawn a line in the sand bunker for fans and players alike.

PGA Tour players must make the cut at tournaments to earn a share of the purse. LIV Golf events are by invitation, with no cut, and guaranteed payouts. First, for joining; second, for simply playing, no matter where they finished.

LIV Golf vs the PGA Tour is a hot topic. The PGA Tour is changing its mold on how players can earn more to compete with the payouts the golfers on LIV Golf receive.

Every top PGA Tour player became the center of a story after LIV Golf’s emergence. Will he go? How much will they pay him? How could he leave the PGA Tour?

How could he not?

Liv Golf’s Beginnings

The controversy stretches beyond PGA Tour loyalty. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bankrolls LIV Golf. It began with a $200 million buyout of the Asian Tour and an overhaul of the circuit. The DP World Tour and PGA Tour quickly questioned the intent of the move and denounced it.

Greg Norman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and golf legend, was picked to lead the upstart league. At his disposal: Hundreds of millions of dollars. His mission: To lure the 48 players needed for the four-player, 12-team format mapped out. 

“We are not trying to destroy the PGA Tour or the European Tour,” Norman told Fox News. “We are there to work within the ecosystem to show that it’s a big enough space. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry.”

At risk for PGA Tour players: Suspensions for taking part in LIV Golf events. (They were taken off the FedEx Tour points list immediately). That fear played prominently for younger players especially. Despite concern about where the Saudi funding truly came from, prominent players began to defect.

Phil Nickelson, the winner of six PGA Tour majors, moved for a reported $200 million guaranteed. Former world No. 1 Justin Johnson got $125 million to join (he’d won $74.2 million in his PGA Tour career.) Charl Schwartzel, often ranked in the triple digits worldwide with $20 million in career earnings, pocketed a cool $4 for one LIV Golf title.

The money grab alone seemed sufficient to shift any player that chose to switch. Mickelson, himself questioned for disparaging comments made about the tour funding before it began, citing different reasons. “After 32 years (on the PGA Tour), this new path is a fresh start,” he posted on Twitter. “One that is exciting for me at this stage of my career and is clearly transformative, not only for myself but for the game and my peers.”

Who Else Jumped Ship?

Bryson DeChambeau is an eight-time PGA Tour winner with one major to his credit. He turned down LIV Golf’s initial offer, but not the second. As Mickelson, DeChambeau expressed a desire to play in majors, not under the umbrella of the PGA tour. (They’re run by independent organizations).

By the fourth LIV event — at The International, near Boston — the tour had its 48 players. Among them: The world No. 2, Ryder Cup stars, and promising young PGA talent. Included:

  • Abraham Ancer
  • Sergio García
  • Martin Kaymer
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Joaquin Niemann
  • Ian Poulter
  • Graeme McDowell
  • Patrick Reed
  • Cameron Smith
  • Henrik Stenson
  • Lee Westwood
  • Matthew Wolff

Seven of the past 13 Masters winners? LIV Golf members. Free-flowing money and a less strenuous schedule gained momentum. So much so that players left despite the promise of bans from PGA Tour events for participating.

And yet, golf’s top prize, Tiger Woods, tied for most PGA Tour wins, remained unmoved  — despite offers reportedly as high as $800 million to $1 billion. Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, and Jordan Spieth join him in remaining with the establishment — for now. 

LIV Golf plotted an eight-event schedule opposite the PGA Tour’s less shiny events. Norman hoped ordinary golfers would win, further proof to those toeing the line that the real money was not in the PGA Tour. 

Which begged the question: Could PGA Tour players be … underpaid?

The PGA Tour Response

LIV Golf’s exorbitant offers brought this question to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. 

“We’re 100% focused on creating the strongest competitive platform for the best players in the world,” Monahan said. “If the PGA Tour is going to compete on dollars alone against a foreign monarchy that is trying to buy the game, that’s a very difficult spot for us to be in.”

It’s not like players were tightening their belts. The tour had upped earnings in significant ways:

  • A record $428.6 million prize fund for 2022-23 in 47 events; 44 tournaments and three FedEx Cup Playoff series events
  • The FedEx Cup increased its top prize to $18 million (from $10 million)
  • The Player Impact Program began with a $40 million pool, doled to players who have the most positive impact on the tour
  • The PGA and DP World tours’ new 13-year partnership to increase new player pathways and expanded compensation
  • Limited-field, no-cut tournaments, a la LIV Golf’s example
  • More big tournaments, more big purses

Perhaps the LIV Golf members who left the PGA Tour did the remaining players a solid. “You’re welcome,” said Talor Gooch, a one-time PGA winner who joined the Saudi-backed fray, in light of the PGA cash infusion.

Steve Martin is the global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, an American sponsorship and marketing firm. He wonders when the PGA tour would eventually pony up.

“It’s been known that the PGA Tour has had so much money down the back of the sofa for an awfully long time, which has suddenly just appeared,” said Martin. His firm works with many sponsors and tournaments in golf.

Star Leadership Helps

Woods, appropriately, led PGA Tour player meetings intent on aligning the legacy tour for long-term success. The plan: Get the remaining players in unity, pare down the season and get the tour’s best to play against each other most often. The rivalry has at least sparked interest in the sport in a new way.

Woods had teamed with McIlroy on TMRW Sports, including a tech-heavy golf endeavor affiliated with the PGA Tour.

“When you put the forces of those two together, it should be powerful,” Martin said. They “are very good at understanding their audience. They’re aware who they’re talking to, who’s engaging with and following them.”

Golf Weekly proposed a Presidents Cup-style competition between rival tours to many PGA players recently. As part of the magazine’s Presidents Cup coverage at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, it got an interesting response.

“I wouldn’t mind playing in it, but at the same time, you’ve got to look at things — what would the PGA Tour benefit from that? Nothing,” said Billy Horschel, an eight-time winner. “If we win, we’re supposed to win. If we lose, it looks bad on the PGA Tour.”

Xander Schauffele has won seven times on the PGA Tour. He says competition is good for viewers — and for golf. 

“If it’s in a sick venue and organized really well and looks something like this (Presidents Cup), it’s what we all play for,” he said. “Obviously with what’s been happening with the two sides and being on this side of the fence or that side of the fence, it’s kind of just another hypothetical.”

What Does the Future Hold, Then?

LIV Golf’s catchphrase rages against the tradition of the “gentleman’s sport.” 

“Golf, but louder,” encapsulated an effort to appeal to fans perhaps off-put by the conservative nature of the game. Through it all, dollar signs might as well have been exclamation points.

Even ordinary golfers stood to bank enormous payouts for a good weekend.

As detractors question money sources for the LIV Golf purses, those within the organization fancy it less a blood-money operation and more an industry disruptor. Uber with golf spikes, or Netflix for 54 holes. 

But is it all good for the sport?

Saudi investors had already taken to the pitch and the racetrack, backing F1 teams and buying Newcastle of the Premier League. Golf presented a compelling new splash: To transform a sport it saw as boring and saturated. To bring it to new and younger audiences, with five-hour playing windows rather than all-day competitions nearly every weekend.

Who Do You Root For?

The team format played into a loyalty aspect golf didn’t see with individual players, no matter how polarizing or popular.

That part of the deal is what the PGA Tour banks on keeping it relevant. Your grandfather rooted for Nicklaus, you for Payne Stewart, and your kids for Tiger Woods. Would there be loyalty for golf teams over individuals in the long haul? Even with its own streaming deal — LIV began broadcasting on YouTube — the dollars might not match what the PGA Tour gets on cable TV. 

Martin, from M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, wonders what’s in it for the fans, many of whom might feel forced to pledge allegiance. Who among them can watch all the golf?

“It’s always about what the players and rights holders want,” Martin said. “I’ve always thought that’s been tone-deaf from both sides.”

As the dust settled and PGA Tour loyalists dismissed hard feelings on defectors, something happened. A group of LIV players filed suit against the PGA Tour for banning them from events. The animosity rose again, centered on the courtroom rather than the putting green. 

LIV Tour event winner Shane Lowry expressed disdain for some players on the other side of the divide. “There are certain guys that I just can’t stand them being here,” he said. McIlroy shares similar sentiments, saying it would be “hard to stomach” competing against some of them.

“We are going to back up the players, we are going to be there for them, for whatever that is,” LIV commissioner Norman said. “We’re ready to go. We don’t want to go, but we’re ready to go.”

Where it will go remains to be seen. Quotes and developments will become headlines for every major tournament in which players from both sides will convene. And for now, maybe that’s just what the sport needs.

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