Confronted with a tough lie in the rough, the PGA Tour has opted to play it safe and lay up.
Facing the most serious challenge to its dominance in its half-century-long history, the Tour has handed out sweeping justice, indefinite but also uncertain. Players who have defected from the PGA Tour to play on the upstart LIV Golf tour are, as of Wednesday morning, suspended from the PGA Tour … and players who are thinking about leaping to LIV can expect the same treatment.
How long will the suspensions last? What are the options for reinstatement? What will the Tour do, aside from slamming down further hammers, to ensure no more defections occur? Answers TBD, across the board.
The vague, par-5-length gray area in the Tour’s statement is obviously because the Tour is anticipating a torrent of legal challenges. But while the Tour can mount a vigorous defense — there are a few lawyers out there who play golf now and then — it’s up against what’s now looking like an existential threat.
The fact that the PGA Tour is even announcing suspensions at all is a departure for the normally opaque organization. In most instances, the public only learns that a player has been suspended if that player actually speaks up himself, the way John Daly once did. The player who allegedly used illegal substances and then took a leave of absence for many weeks, the player who spoke out against the Tour and then didn’t make a public appearance for several months … were they suspended or just very quiet? The PGA Tour won’t say.
But when the subject is LIV Golf, the PGA Tour striped it right down the middle of the fairway: 17 players, from Phil Mickelson to Andy Ogletree, all suspended. No recourse, no appeal, just a you were warned, this is on you and boom, done.
The Tour has a massive fight on its hands, and the last week has proven that LIV isn’t just some what-the-hell flop shot of a league. With what amounts to limitless funding and a business plan that doesn’t rely on making a profit for success, LIV can afford to hack away at the Tour, one known name at a time. Yesterday, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. Today, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed. Tomorrow: who knows? Masters winners? U.S. Open winners? Hall of Famers? Anyone south of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy seems like they might be in play.
That’s a headache today, but a catastrophe tomorrow. What happens if the next Jordan Spieth, the next Collin Morikawa, the next Jon Rahm decides to leap to LIV rather than work their way up through the PGA Tour? The challenge for the Tour isn’t just holding onto the players it has, but remaining attractive to the future players now in college, high school and pitch-’n-putt.
With that in mind, it’s worth asking exactly why golfers are racing away from the PGA Tour and toward LIV Golf with all the determined speed of golf journalists running for the open bar at the end of the Masters. Yes, there are the vast sums of money – life-changing money from even a single weekend’s work, like the $4 million prize for the winner of this week’s LIV tournament in London.
But there’s more to it than that, for Tour pros. Like every longstanding institution, the PGA Tour has been doing business one way for so long that it seems like the only way: specifically, the practice of not offering any kind of appearance fees or guarantees to anyone, no matter what. This is partly due to the Tour’s nonprofit status — charity is one of the Tour’s big selling points to sponsors, if not to players — but partly due to a deeply-embedded sing-for-your-supper approach to the game.
It’s a system that rewards weekly grinding, which means it’s a tremendous incentive for players in the middle of the pack. But it’s also a system that penalizes the true drivers of the PGA Tour, the players whose very presence draws galleries to the course and viewers to TVs on Sunday afternoons.
Every time Tiger Woods announces he’s playing in a tournament, for instance, ticket sales spike and so do ratings. And yet Woods flies into every tournament with no assurance that he’ll walk away with even a nickel. One bad day and he’s on a plane Friday night, five days’ worth of work for zero reward.
In his entire career, Woods has earned $120,895,206. That’s a vast sum, yes, but let’s speak in relatives rather than absolutes. Mike Trout has earned $196.7 million over the course of his career, and he hasn’t even won a single playoff game. Deshaun Watson has a guaranteed contract over the next five years that’s nearly twice what Woods has won his entire career. Steph Curry has matched Woods’ career earnings in the past two-plus seasons.
Yes, I’m sure that you, presumably with career earnings below $120 million, are extremely worried about how Tiger Woods is going to put food on his table tonight. But again, this isn’t about absolute dollar amounts, it’s about value — and it’s impossible to argue with a straight face that Woods has been compensated fairly relative to the value he brought to the Tour.
But instead of acknowledging the role that money has played in LIV defectors’ departure, the Tour attempted to downplay it, leaning heavily on history and legacy. “I am certain our fans and partners — who are surely tired of all this talk of money, money, and more money — will continue to be entertained and compelled by the world-class competition you display each and every week,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan wrote, “where there are true consequences for every shot you take and your rightful place in history whenever you reach that winner’s circle.”
It’s an effective pitch — you’re part of golf history on the Tour — and one which resonates with Woods, McIlroy and certain others with secure legacies. But a less misty-eyed reading of that would note that at some point, perhaps there don’t need to be “true consequences” for every shot when you’ve already secured your “rightful place in history.”
The LIV tour has boxed in the PGA Tour quicker and more effectively than anyone outside LIV offices would have expected. Now the PGA Tour is reacting, because it failed to be proactive. The Tour isn’t invulnerable, and it isn’t too big to fail … especially not when facing a challenger with unlimited resources and the interest of players up and down the leaderboard.
When the club you’ve been using over and over again just doesn’t get it done, maybe it’s time to change your approach.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.