The curly-haired kid from Northern Ireland spent the first couple years of his professional career working his way up through the ranks of European golf. He was Europe’s brightest hope, the continent’s answer to Tiger Woods. And when he was barely 20 years old, he decided to jump to the United States and the PGA Tour.
Now, more than a decade later, that kid is the voice of the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy still aligns himself with Europe — he’s been a Ryder Cup legend for his entire career — but he’s planted his flag in the United States, on the side of the PGA Tour.
“I want to play on the PGA Tour,” McIlroy reaffirmed in June, “against the best players in the world.”
The implication was that the world’s best players compete on the PGA Tour, not the what would be McIlroy's home tour in Europe. Until LIV Golf arrived, that was always the case. Now, though, winds are changing in professional golf … and they’re starting to blow away from the Tour and the United States.
Scotland invented golf, but the United States perfected professional golf. Since Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and other players spun the PGA Tour off from the PGA of America in the late 1960s, the best players in the world play on the PGA Tour. Four of the top seven career money leaders on Tour hail from outside the United States — McIlroy, Vijay Singh, Adam Scott and Justin Rose. Ninety of the Tour’s current members are international, comprising 28 different countries.
The Tour’s geographic and logistical proximity to the majors — three of the four are held in the United States — have helped establish it as the professional standard of golf tours around the world. But the sudden growth of LIV, its alignment with the Asian Tour, its global perspective, and its attractiveness to international players all pose a clear and present threat to the Tour’s longstanding geographic dominance.
“A trend is developing. It’s pretty clear this is more likely to be influential globally than the United States,” said Martin Conway, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a member of Georgetown’s Global Business of Sports program. “There’s been more interest, or demand, on the player side from European and international players. They want to play the majors, play in high-dollar, high-interest events, but they’re not so interested in the John Deere Classic.”
The United States has always suffered from severe sports myopia: if it’s popular here, it’s important, and if it’s not, who cares about it? To a great extent, this was earned arrogance. Any professional baseball player who wants to compete against the best has to come to America, like Shohei Ohtani. Same thing for any professional basketball player, like Giannis Antetokounmpo. And, until very recently, for any professional golfer.
The problem with that kind of parochial thinking is that it blinds American audiences to the reality of just how vast the non-American sports audience is. American audiences just now discovered Formula One racing … a sport that the rest of the world has appreciated in staggering numbers for decades. Soccer doesn’t even register as a blip for most Americans older than the millennial generation, but the 2018 World Cup final, for instance, drew viewership numbers literally 10 times that of recent Super Bowls — 1.12 billion as opposed to around 100 million.
The growth potential for Western sports in Eastern and Middle Eastern nations far outstrips that of the United States. The Asian Tour comprises eight nations, including Japan and India, with a widespread and, so far, under-served population of potential golf fans … and potential future players.
“That’s 4 1/2 billion people sitting there with an opportunity for the game of golf to grow,” LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman said recently in a LIV-authored story on the game’s international growth. He termed the Asian market a “sleeping giant,” echoing an often-used, and now antiquated, metaphor for the vast economic potential of China.
Whether Norman is attempting to grow the game of golf among the youth of the world, providing a ready-made sponsorship vehicle for corporations with an eye on international investment, or helping the Saudi government sportswash its reputation, the effect is the same: inexorably drawing golf’s center of gravity away from the United States and the PGA Tour.
“This is a reflection globally of what happens when the U.S. league may not be the predominant league,” Conway said. “If you’re the best baseball player, you have to be here, but that’s beginning to turn. The best golfers don’t necessarily have to play on the PGA Tour.”
That’s already the case in sports such as soccer. Even American stars such as Christian Pulisic — born in Hershey, Pennsylvania — don’t stay stateside out of national loyalty; they travel to compete on much larger stages like, in Pulisic’s case, Chelsea of the Premier League.
With all due respect to the Midwest Insurance Opens and Coastal Financial Services Company Invitationals that dot the PGA Tour, international players have no institutional or hereditary loyalty to most of the Tour’s events, and understandably so. Their focus is on preeminent PGA Tour events like the Players Championship, the Memorial and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The PGA Tour is offering tradition and history. But for an international player, “tradition” and “history” of the PGA Tour aren’t as attractive as they were to, say, a young Justin Thomas or a young Scottie Scheffler, two avid Tour defenders raised in the United States, or a young Rory McIlroy, who had no other option if he wanted to compete against the world’s best.
If — and this is the “if” that will define professional golf for the next decade — the LIV Tour is able to secure a pathway to the majors, whether through Official World Golf Rankings or through alignment with an established tour, the arguments for joining the PGA Tour become even more fragile.
Already, Cam Smith and Marc Leishman, two of Australia’s most notable players, are strongly rumored to be joining LIV, with other high-profile international players apparently soon to follow after the conclusion of this PGA Tour season. The 2022 equivalent of McIlroy, whether he’s in Japan, India, England or Chile, might not be so quick to join the PGA Tour if the option of playing on the LIV Tour is a viable one.
“Greg Norman and his team are looking at establishing this Tour in the eyes of the World Golf Rankings, buying Asian Tour events, securing rights for players to play in the majors — that’s what’s preeminent for them,” Conway said. “I don’t think they’re as interested in securing PGA Tour memberships (for their players). It would be nice to have, but it’s not a must have.”
The PGA Tour’s United States-based tradition and history have propelled it for a half-century and counting. But unless the Tour is ready to step up its international outreach and appeal, what’s worked so well for the Tour in the Arnie, Jack and Tiger eras won’t work nearly so well in the LIV era.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.