Cam Smith’s reported LIV defection would be different. Here’s why
“I’m a man of my word and whenever you guys need to know anything, it’ll be said by me.”
So said Cameron Smith on Wednesday in Memphis, site of the FedEx Cup Playoffs’ first round, the FedEx St. Jude Championship, in response to a report that he is set to join LIV after the conclusion of the PGA Tour season. It also led to a natural follow-up:
So … are you going to LIV?
“I have no comment to that,” Smith said. “I’m here to play the FedEx Cup.”
In other words, Smith will tell us big news when he thinks we need to know. But that’s where his view of current golf events diverges from ours: He’s happy to wait, but we need to know right now! The future of professional golf is in flux, and Smith — whose alleged $100 million deal with the Saudi-backed LIV Tour (first reported by the Telegraph) would kick in after the PGA Tour season concludes — is now in the thick of things. Smith hasn’t confirmed that he’s leaving, but he sure hasn’t denied it, either, nor given the type of loyalty pledge we’ve grown accustomed to from some other PGA Tour players.
There’s enough there to at least explore the question, then: How would Smith leaving be different? Because his departure is unlike any other LIV member. Here’s how.
He’s No. 2 in the world.
LIV’s top-ranked signee is currently No. 18 Dustin Johnson. Up to this point, that has been the easiest takedown of LIV fields: they lack the best golfers in the world. That’s a more difficult case to make should Smith, who is in the running for PGA Tour Player of the Year, make the leap. He would add instant credibility to the circuit; he’s 28 years old, in the prime of his career and playing the best golf of his life.
He’s the Players Champion.
It would be particularly awkward to return to TPC Sawgrass next season without the defending champion. The Players is the crown jewel of the PGA Tour, boasting the largest purse and the deepest field on an iconic golf course. It’s hosted around the corner from Tour headquarters and promises to be a cornerstone of the Tour’s vision going forward. And when Smith won last year’s event, he was a welcome champion: He lives just around the corner, practices at Sawgrass and was a breath of fresh air, his blond mustache-mullet combo has given life to golf fans everywhere. But now he cuts a distinctly different silhouette than the two previous Players winners, Tour loyalists Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. If Smith is suspended when we roll into Ponte Vedra Beach next spring, that will be undeniably awkward.
He’s the Open Champion.
Smith’s reported agreement with LIV may or may not have been finalized before his Open Championship win. Regardless, the juxtaposition is still pretty striking. The fight for pro golf’s future has been framed as tradition vs. money, and should Smith leave he would have a weighty piece of tradition — the claret jug, won at St. Andrews — and then take the LIV money to boot.
Several players referred to winning an Open at St. Andrews as the “Holy Grail” last month. It’s dream stuff for golf junkies. So there’s some symbolic weight to Smith joining such historic company and then bouncing from the PGA Tour immediately thereafter.
But it’s more than just symbolic. Smith’s win also means he’ll be exempt into just about everything — at least, every event from which he wouldn’t be suspended. Barring drastic action from the R&A, Smith will be invited back to the Open for the next 32 years. He’ll be able to play the other majors for the next five years. And, were it not for the aforementioned iciness between LIV and the PGA Tour, he’d be exempt there for the next five years, too.
(Sidenote: The timing of Smith’s contract, if it indeed exists, is a fascinating subplot, given how much more he could have commanded after the Open than before.)
He can cite non-monetary reasons.
Smith was asked during last year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs what he’d do with $15 million. His response struck a chord with golf fans for its everyman quality.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty set to be honest,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do, to be honest. Maybe some more fishing equipment.”
Perhaps his imagination has expanded since then. And I’m not naive enough to suggest that anyone leaving for a LIV mega-contract is doing it for significant reasons other than the money. But there was another report that came out Tuesday from Australian Golf Digest’s Evin Priest that could help put the pieces together. That report mentioned that in addition to a LIV event planned for Sydney in April there will be two International Series events scheduled around the same time. The International Series is a LIV-sponsored set of tournaments within the Asian Tour that will serve as a feeder tour of sorts for LIV. As a result, LIV will have done what the PGA Tour has not: Created something of an Aussie Swing.
There has already been plenty of chatter of an all-Aussie LIV team. Matt Jones and Aussie golf fans have always resented the PGA Tour for not taking care of its golf-rich region of the world. Smith himself has called for a PGA Tour event in his home country. It appears LIV may be accessing that market first.
He can bring World Ranking points.
LIV pros’ chances to get into future majors depends in part on their ability to accrue World Ranking points. They’ve already revealed part of their acquisition strategy: They’ll play some International Series events, effectively boosting an event’s field strength by all showing up at once. But as we mentioned before, LIV pros’ World Rankings don’t have an anchor at the top. At least, they didn’t until now. Smith dragging his No. 2 status into the mix means everyone else in the LIV ecosystem will play for more points as they attempt to tread water while the OWGR reviews its application.
But it’s also not that different.
Look, Cameron Smith leaving the PGA Tour is a very big deal. It changes the conversation. It shifts the narrative. He represents a serious weapon for LIV and a great talking point for its executives. But it feels more like we’re seeing battle lines drawn than anything. We knew there were a few more top pros that were going to make the leap to LIV by year’s end. There will be a few more, though none ranked as high as Smith.
But their defections won’t be endless. (Not this year, at least.) LIV already collected big names. Mickelson, Johnson, DeChambeau, Koepka. Now it appears to have a red-hot golfer on the line. It has established itself as a formidable competitor. Now slightly more so. But really what Smith’s signing would cement is just the idea that neither side appears to be going anywhere. We’re just figuring out the specifics of war.