JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Fred Couples, who has captained three U.S. Presidents Cup teams to victory, is leading a different kind of team this week at Liberty National, hard against the Hudson River across from Lower Manhattan. His charge this time around: the U.S. squad at the Icons Series, a new match-play event that pits 12 golf-mad athletes from the U.S. against their counterparts from across the world.
Couples has some strategizing to do before the matches begin in earnest Thursday morning: Should he pair up former NFL running backs Reggie Bush and Marshall Faulk, for example, or would he be better off cross-pollinating athletes from different sports, matching, say, ex-MLB pitcher John Smoltz with hoopster-turned-college golfer J.R. Smith. Decisions, decisions…
Alas, as Couples paced the property with a reporter on Wednesday, the former Masters champion was mulling another decision, one that has dominated the golf-news cycle in recent weeks: the choice many of his fellow PGA Tour players have made to sever ties with the PGA Tour and sign lucrative deals with the upstart Saudi-funded LIV Golf series.
As Couples strolled to the range under sun-splashed skies one of his Icons players caught up to him: 28-time Olympic medalist and avowed golf nut Michael Phelps.
“Let me ask you a question,” Couples said to the swimming legend. “You win the L.A. Open or a LIV [event] — L.A., you get a million-nine, LIV you get four [million]. What trophy would you rather have in your house?”
“For me,” Phelps said, “I want to go out there and be a part of history, and try to recreate history. That’s what I was all about.”
“You know what,” Couples said, “here’s a guy who’s won a million [swimming] events and he just said it right on the button.”
Couples, as you’ve probably deduced by now, is a PGA Tour loyalist, a legacy guy. He’s not opposed to change or improvement, but he is “disappointed,” he says, that players have jumped ship for LIV. He has made that clear in a few tweets he’s posted over the past two months — “Great to see some real and exciting golf being played in Canada this weekend,” he tweeted in the wake of the Canadian Open last month, a cheeky shot at that week’s LIV Golf event in London — but on Wednesday Couples expounded in no uncertain terms on his feelings about the rival tour and the PGA Tour stars who have contracted with it, at least a few of whom Couples has captained, or captained against, in past team events.
First and foremost, Couples said, he is uncomfortable with LIV’s financial backers: the Saudi government, which has been accused of various human-rights atrocities.
“I think this is a family thing for me,” Couples said. “I’m a little peon from Seattle, but I know where the money’s coming from, and I think my family would disown me if I went. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m not going, so I can actually tell you whatever I want to tell you.”
The same cannot be said of players who have signed with LIV, Couples said. They’ve essentially been muzzled, he said, which has been apparent in press conferences.
“These guys — you’ve seen their interviews, right?” Couples said. “Have you ever seen Phil look so stupid in his life? They know it’s a joke.”
Couples was referring to Phil Mickelson’s two most recent press conferences — one at the debut LIV event in London, the other at the U.S. Open — in which Mickelson, in many observers’ eyes, delivered a series of inadequate answers when trying to explain or rationalize his LIV allegiance.
On Tuesday of this week, at the second LIV event near Portland, Ore., more LIV signees faced the press, including a trio of the newest big-name commits: Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Pat Perez. Seated together at a dais in a joint press conference, the players faced a predictable line of questioning from the assembled reporters, including queries about Saudi human-rights issues, what convinced the players to join LIV and if the PGA Tour could have done anything to keep the players from leaving. As the questions kept coming, the mood in the room grew more and more tense.
“I heard of all people Perez was a little confrontational,” Couples said of the three-time PGA Tour winner. “He’s a grain of sand in this Tour. He should be soft and kind, but he’s, like, raising his voice. I’m done with it.”
Couples also questioned the long-term viability of LIV. He said he understands that the tour’s organizers are not seeking a quick profit but still is confounded by the huge sums they’re offering players.
“I cannot believe they can pay a guy $150 million for that,” Couples said; LIV players are obligated to play only eight 54-hole events in 2022 with plans to expand the schedule in ’23 and beyond. “What, Phil wouldn’t have gone for 100 and Dustin [Johnson] for 70? Then what does that tell you right there?”
The reasons players have cited for signing with LIV also ring hollow to Couples. Many players have said the lighter schedule is a draw; some have admitted the life-changing payday was too tempting to resist; others have said they’re simply trying to help “grow the game.”
“They’re all saying they want to change golf, they’re doing it for the better of golf,” Couples said. “No one has said, ‘Hey, when I look back 50 years from now … we’ll have made this tour [what it is].’ No one has said that. You know why? Because they’re not going to be around in three years.”
For his part, Mickelson has said that he is committed to LIV for at least two years. At that point, he’ll be nearly 54 and presumably still a big attraction. If his largely positive reception at the U.S. Open last month was any indication, Mickelson is still in golf fans’ good graces. Less clear is whether Mickelson’s peer group on Tour feels the same way.
Couples is 10 years older than Mickelson, but they have battled one another in hundreds of tournaments while establishing themselves as two of the most beloved players of their generation. In 2006, they played together in the final pairing at the Masters; when Mickelson won his second green jacket that Sunday, he and Couples embraced on the 18th green. Just last year, Couples and Mickelson were vice-captains on Steve Stricker’s winning U.S. Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits. They have had some good times together.
“I don’t think I’ll ever to talk to him again,” Couples said. “What for? I’m not in the same boat as him anymore, and probably never will play golf with him again. I’m not saying that to be mean. We’re just in different orbits.”