By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Golf’s summer of change and controversy has rumbled on, with money, conjecture, and a seismic split down the center of the sport overshadowing virtually everything that’s taken place from tee to green.
And yet, with the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs beginning this week, lawsuits flying back and forth, a crucial date on the calendar approaching and breakaway LIV Golf gaining momentum, things might only just be getting heated up.
Matters in the courtroom are becoming feisty, the Tour going on the attack in response to a legal attempt by LIV trio Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones to be allowed to take part in the playoffs based on their existing results, despite having moved over to Greg Norman’s new venture.
“The antitrust laws do not allow Plaintiffs to have their cake and eat it too,” this week’s PGA Tour motion read, while eviscerating LIV for its involvement with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund on account of that nation’s human rights reputation.
The Tour is coming out strongly because it must. The precise time its postseason ends, with the Tour Championship at the end of this month, is when the status quo is most vulnerable.
There is a school of thought that several potential LIV signings are holding off until the end of the FedEx Cup campaign, which offers a whopping $18 million to the overall winner, before inking big money deals.
Among those rumored most strongly are Tour No. 2 Cameron Smith — the British Open champion and perhaps the most exciting talent in the game — and reigning FedEx Cup winner Patrick Cantlay (currently No. 6). Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (No. 11) is also seen as a prime LIV target due to the organization’s wish to align more closely with the Asian Tour.
There have been some half-denials and corresponding pledges of commitment to the Tour, but we also saw those from Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka before they moved to LIV. Not giving away any secrets here, but money talks in golf, and it does so extremely loudly.
The Tour has wasted no opportunity to paint the departed as ungrateful mercenaries and regularly uses the term “Saudi Golf League” to connect LIV to the Saudi regime and its murder, according to the U.S. State Department, of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But it’s also highlighted that several PGA Tour prize pool sponsors have Saudi ties, too. Furthermore, the DP World Tour, now firmly in alliance with the PGA Tour, has staged events in Saudi Arabia and previously encouraged its players to compete there.
If another batch of PGA Tour stars was to go, the Tour would find itself in some trouble. It has some loyal fans, especially among middle-aged followers of the game and older. But a younger group seems prepared to take a look at what LIV is trying to do.
Politics aside, there is some legitimate value to making the game more appealing to viewers. LIV’s shotgun start is an interesting case study in that it is more confusing to those familiar with golf than those new to it.
A leaderboard where everyone has played the same amount of holes in real-time is simpler for the newbies to comprehend, and allows for a day of action to be condensed into a manageable time window.
You also have to wonder whether too much golf (the Tour plays well over 40 weeks per year) leads to over-saturation for the Tour and dilutes the product. Last weekend, a quiet spot in the overall sports calendar, the closing stages of the Tour’s Wyndham Championship were broadcast on national network TV.
It came with a neat story, as 20-year-old Joohyung Kim became the second-youngest Tour winner since 1932.
But with those at the top of the playoff standings resting, it was a case of unknowns at the head of the leaderboard, and all the way through the field. For those who tuned in on a casual basis, it might have all been a little underwhelming.
LIV, with 48-player fields over three days and no cut, aims to do more with less, staging eight events this year and increasing to 14 in 2023. At its last event in Bedminster, Johnson and Patrick Reed were in strong contention throughout, while victory fell to Henrik Stenson, who days earlier had been axed as European Ryder Cup captain over his defection.
Who knows what golf’s summer of discontent will lead to in the fall, when LIV’s schedule builds up and the PGA Tour goes quiet?
Amid it all, golf fans are wrestling with how to view things. One is to take the Tour’s party line that the Saudi-backed product is an outrage, that the players are a disgrace for being a part of it and that the whole thing should be ignored.
To do that, however, requires some selective moral theorizing, given the input of Saudi Arabia and other uncompromising regimes such as China and Russia, across many sports.
“If you’re going to dismiss LIV Golf … on purely ethical grounds, you better not watch Premier League soccer,” wrote the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mark Ziegler. “Or the NBA. Or the NFL. Or the Tour de France. Or Formula One racing. Or MMA. Or boxing. Or horse racing.”
The reason golf’s split is so divisive is that it is messy. Some of those opposed to LIV feel that way for the strongest and most personal of reasons, such as the families of 9/11 victims that protested at Bedminster.
Others feel players should be allowed to maximize their earnings and should not be made to play a political game.
Either way, it is easy to paint everything that has happened as being disastrous for golf. Except … maybe that’s not the case. To suggest all publicity is good publicity is an over-simplification, but when was golf last spoken about this much? When Tiger Woods was in his prime? Maybe not even then.
It has been a wild ride, but don’t expect things to slow down. The next few weeks of playoffs should showcase the best the PGA Tour has to offer. But it’s anyone’s guess what the field for those playoffs might look like a year from now.
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