“I’ve now lost track of whether I’m one of the good or the bad guys!” So Lee Westwood texted me on Tuesday after yet another remarkable chapter was written in the LIV saga. The former world No 1’s bewilderment is eminently understandable.
Certainly the picture is becoming ever more confused, the landscape ever more surreal. Take the first official practice day here at The Players. Rory McIlroy strode into the media center and all but confessed to feeling grateful to LIV Golf.
Yes, that is the Rory McIlroy, previously the arch critic of LIV Golf and everyone in it.
Regardless of what anyone says about the Saudi-funded rebel circuit, nobody can deny its remarkable impact on a professional world that until recently had been so set in its ways and so resistant to change.
Back in the day – which, in truth, is a timeframe better expressed in months than the years – the top guys wanted more and felt they deserved more. What were the other options? If the audience was captivated then so too were the characters at the front of the stage.
But then the Riyadh royals saw the opportunity to exploit this frustration and pumped $2 billion – and counting – into the formation of their own league and after the moaner-in-chief, Phil Mickelson, jumped ship along with other copper-bottomed Hall-of -Famers in Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, the entire shebang was turned upside down.
With nine-figure signing-on fees, the great money-grab had teed off and the dusty old PGA Tour – with its quaint democratic, membership-owned principles at the heart of its non-profit, charitable status – was reeling on the ropes , seemingly unable to fathom how to deal with an actual rival, never mind a rival with apparently unlimited resources.
“Legacy,” they decided. That was the answer. Tell the pros that they would be prostituted their childhood dreams for something as crude as generational wealth and surely they will be reminded of why they applied stick to ball in the first place. “We will not be going dollar against dollar,” Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, told us here at this very event a year ago.
But there he was on the same stage on Tuesday, explaining a 2024 calendar where it is all about the greenback and the direction in which it is being employed. This week they will play for $25 million and next year there will be eight designated events in which limited fields of approximately 70 – top – players will compete for similar prize funds, without the inconvenience of a cut. Dollar to dollar, dust to dust…
Monahan’s players palpably did not favor the heritage over the hard currency and as the march to LIV threatened to become a full-blown exodus – as most alarmingly highlighted by Cameron Smith’s defection just a few weeks after winning the 150th Open – Tiger Woods and McIlroy took charge. They convened a meeting of the – top – players last August, and demanded that the elite performers receive a bigger slice of the pie to stop the talent drain. That was what put the overhaul in motion.
Granted, the – top – players wanted the “elevated” events to be as few as 50 players without a great deal of promotion or relegation and Monahan has been successful in persuading those players to allow it to be more meritocratic.
The upshot is that the “churn rate” will be 60 per cent, with the opportunity for every PGA Tour member to birdie their way into the big time. Yet for some the devil is not in the detail but in the almost overnight transformation in philosophy.
Of course, the Tour would be accused of copying LIV, with its no-cut and guaranteed-money and restricted-entry revolution and of course, Monahan would counter by arguing that the Tour has always featured events like this and claim that this just about satisfying the fans’ desire to witness the best against the best.
But slice through the corporate PR guff and the claims to historic grandeur, and it is undeniable the Tour is imitating LIV, if only in the sense that the bulk of the rewards are now essentially going to the elite. And when those ‘poor’ lower-ranked members of the Tour will still be competing in $8 million events is this necessarily a bad thing?
McIlroy evidently thinks not and his admission that the birth of LIV effectively frogmarched the Tour into the 21st Century is simple honesty.
However, here is the absurdity of this bizarre situation. If Mickelson and the other renegades had hung around, then their issues with the Tour would have been rectified. And yet it was only their defections that forced the Tour into action. So Westwood has every right to feel mystified.
So what are we left with? Well, there are 31 LIV players who appeared in this event last year but who are banned from playing this year. This includes the top three from 2022. To think, The Players was the Tour’s flagship. Until there was that mutiny over the bounty.