Faced with an existential threat from a rival tour, the PGA Tour is suddenly open to all kinds of weird ideas.
First up – golf’s rich tradition. Time to get rid of that. LIV Golf doesn’t do cuts because cuts mean someone isn’t making money. Three months ago, cutless golf was worse than heresy. Now it’s an aspiration. The PGA is considering going to smaller, no-cut fields by 2024.
Do you like money? Because the PGA suddenly found a whole lot of it, and it’s not greedy (any more). It’s creating huge bonus pools to convince what the Tour calls “top players” to play in more tournaments in return for guaranteed cash.
How about golf? Could golf be the problem? How about we get rid of the golf part of golf? The PGA is partnering with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to create “a new, tech-infused golf league” (the PGA’s words) called TGL.
Instead of playing golf on golf courses, PGA players will play green-screen golf in stadiums. Indoor, video game golf is not golf. It’s Nintendo Wii for old people.
Will fans pay good money to watch Jon Rahm, spotlit in a body sock, wired up like he’s in Tron, swinging at an imaginary cup inside Madison Square Garden? No. They won’t.
Averagely stupid ideas are just stupid. But some ideas are so stupendously stupid that upon hearing them, you may think, ‘Something that stupid just might be smart.’ This is one of those.
(It’s also pretty delicious that Woods – whose body is held together by medical-grade steel and the power of positive thinking – is the guy who sold this idea. In 2093, Woods will become the first head-in-a-jar to win the virtual, underwater Masters.)
This isn’t new thinking. This is desperation. This is a complete lack of imagination meeting petro-capitalism head on, and no one’s wearing a seat belt.
What was the PGA’s original plan here? Did it think a good, old public shaming is more powerful than an eight-figure cheque? The PGA people are Americans, right? They live in America? They do get the internet at their house? Read the news? How did they not see the problem with their ethics-vs.-cash approach?
Having had no Plan A, the PGA has to make up Plan B on the fly. How do you fight the Saudi-backed tour? You become the Saudi-backed tour, minus the Saudis.
The problem is money. The PGA can’t guarantee enough of it, fast enough. Amid all the dithering, it continues to bleed players and publicity coups.
This Sunday should have been about PGA loyalist McIlroy chewing through a final-round, six-shot disadvantage to win the Tour Championship by a single shot. Exciting stuff. Instead, attention shifted to a name halfway down the leaderboard – Cameron Smith.
Owing to his teenage-dirtbag aesthetic, Smith is one of the most recognizable players in the game. He’s still in his 20s. He’s ranked No. 2 in the world. He just won his first major (the Open) a month ago.
And, according to reports, he’s skipping over to LIV Golf as soon as next week.
Every time the PGA tries pretending it’s doing something new and fresh, LIV drops one of these pianos on it. Eventually, there will be air horns going off during tournaments – another man down.
The early knock on LIV (aside from the human-rights thing) was that it was a retirement league for middle-aged hacks who’d already won their fill. Smith is a one-man rebuttal to that narrative. He’s golf’s present and its future, and he just chose the other guys.
For the first time, it’s beginning to seem possible that despite its problems (first among them being that no one watches it), LIV could win this war.
If LIV wants to be the accepted golf tour of record, that’s still a verging-on-impossible ask. As long as the majors hold faith with the PGA, the PGA is king.
But if the only goal is humiliating the PGA Tour – which is what it seems like – LIV can manage that. It is doing it, week by week. There is a cunning brilliance in its apparent tactic of luring golfers sporadically and unexpectedly, rather than announcing a whole whack of them at once. It’s death by a thousand defections.
Becoming LIV is not going to solve the problem because the problem isn’t golf. It’s perception. The PGA erred badly in laughing LIV off, which makes it difficult for it to attack now. Why fight a nobody? It only makes it into a somebody. Unless what you’re saying now is that it is a serious contender and maybe it does have some good ideas. Is that what you’re saying?
The more the PGA tries to position its strategic conniptions as normal operating procedure, the more it opens itself to lampooning. Lampooning is the only thing LIV does well.
Another mistake – kicking people as they went out the door. The omerta of professional sport is strong, but having been slapped around in the press all summer, LIV golfers no longer feel bound by it.
“I laugh at what the PGA Tour players have come up with,” LIV defector Lee Westwood told Golf Digest this week. “It’s just a copy of what LIV is doing. There are a lot of hypocrites out there.”
Those are fighting words, not golfing words. Because LIV can’t win a golf war. Not yet, at least.
Having sniped back in the past – largely through McIlroy and Woods – the PGA can’t go silent now. That would look like retreat. So it launches another volley, and then LIV takes another lavishly paid prisoner.
It doesn’t matter who’s winning. What matters is who looks as though it’s winning. Right now, that’s LIV.
Like a lot of conflicts, the beneficiaries aren’t the people fighting (though many of them are getting monstrously rich). The real winner here is the group no one talks about any more – the Saudis – precisely because their role is no longer being discussed.
Now they’re just the friendly money guys who produced this hot, new golfing soap opera. I can hardly wait for their next show.