The winds are swirling in the world of professional golf. With the rumored upstart Saudi golf league threatening an imminent storm on the PGA Tour’s shores, division among players is starting to bubble up to the surface, and star pros are starting to take sides.
So far this week we’ve heard from six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, whose no-holds-barred criticism of the PGA Tour — as well as revelations about his close ties to the Saudi league reported by Alan Shipnuck — catalyzed other pros to speak. It seems Adam Scott and Lee Westwood are on Phil’s side. Perhaps Joaquin Niemann, too.
Other pros have come out strongly in favor of the PGA Tour, such as Justin Thomas, who pilloried Mickelson’s remarks as “egotistical,” Collin Morikawa who mocked the proposed new league, and Pat Perez. They joined previous PGA Tour backers Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods, the last of whom shared his own thoughts on the controversy on Wednesday.
Presumably many of those players siding with the Tour have been offered huge sums of money to join the Saudi league and turned them down, so the guaranteed cash is clearly not a motivating factor for them. But that reality begs one important question as we await the official announcement and schism among pros: what would it take for a player who backs the PGA Tour to switch sides and join the Saudi league?
Rising star Viktor Hovland provided some insight into that tricky question on Friday at the Genesis Invitational. Following his second-round 64, Hovland faced reporters and predictably fielded questions about the Saudi league. He made it clear from the start that he’s on Team PGA Tour. For now.
“Yeah, it’s obviously a lot going on and I just started out playing professional golf. If I I had my wish, I would just keep playing the PGA Tour. But we’ll see what happens.” Hovland said. He added later, “Obviously money is good, it’s nice to make money, but that’s not what gets me up every day in the morning… A tournament like this at a course that — Riviera and all the past winners, it’s a really cool history. Just to be a part of that, that means something to me, being a PGA Tour winner. And yeah, winning these historical events, I think that’s very cool.”
Hovland’s response was not without caveat, which invited the next logical question: what would change his mind?
“I mean, if everyone else goes, I’m kind of –,” Hovland said before a reporter cut in. Then he continued, “I just want to play against the best players in the world. Everyone goes over there, kind of leaves me with no choice, but I would like to play the PGA.”
This is likely the thought that has kept PGA Tour officials up at night frequently over the past two years. The key to the new league’s success — and the biggest threat to the PGA Tour — has always been attracting the best players and biggest stars in the game. If they jump ship, then many other players will have their hands forced, no matter where they’d prefer to play.
But so far, the evidence suggests the new Greg Norman-led league has had little luck doing that, as Hovland noted on Friday.
“Hunches doesn’t really matter too much, it’s about what people do, but it seemed like a lot of good players are voicing their support for the PGA Tour, so that’s certainly going to be a tall task for other leagues if the best players don’t want to go.”
For now, the biggest stars (Tiger, Rory, Rahm, Thomas, Spieth) and the best young players (Morikawa, Hovland) are sticking with the PGA Tour. But anything can happen over the next few weeks, months and years. Hovland said it best on Friday, “we’ll see what happens.”