For a concept pitched as a pathway for the future, the Premier Golf League has inspired a lot of talk about the past.
Witness recent comments from Rory McIlroy, who framed his opposition to the PGL, the lavishly funded, would-be global golf tour, partly out of the desire to have autonomy over his schedule but also partly as a matter of principle over money.
“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one, just sort of as Arnold [Palmer] was with the whole Greg Norman thing in the ’90s,” the world No. 1 said last week at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Those words have put him on the wrong side of Norman, who looks at history in a different light and believes that McIlroy has a distorted view, one he likely didn’t come to on his own.
“I like Rory, no question about it,” Norman told GOLF.com. “But I think what he said was probably coming less from him than it was coming from people around him.”
Norman was in Mexico himself last week for a ribbon cutting at a course he designed, and McIlroy’s words were clearly sticking in his gills.
“This one cuts deep,” Norman said. “It’s a subject that has left a lot of scar tissue for me.”
There’s plenty to unpack, so let’s review.
That “Greg Norman thing” was the World Golf Tour, a globetrotting golf series, somewhat similar in structure to the PGL, that Norman proposed in 1994. With a TV deal in place and the support, Norman believed, of many players, the concept seemed to have legs. But it foundered in the face of savvy PGA Tour maneuvering and vocal opposition from the King. Shortly after Norman announced his plan for the global series, Palmer came out publicly against it. Norman, who had what he describes as a close relationship with Palmer, was devastated.
“I was blindsided, I felt backstabbed,” Norman said. “I’m listening to Arnold, with [then-PGA Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem standing beside him, chest puffed out for a 5-foot-4 guy, and I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding? Why are you saying this?’”
Actually, Norman had a pretty good idea why.
The Aussie superstar was convinced that Palmer had been swayed by his management company, IMG, which owned and operated multiple PGA Tour events and had little interest in seeing a rival to the Tour succeed.
“The Tour got to IMG and then IMG got to Arnold is my belief,” Norman said. “Nobody has spoken to me about it, but it is my understanding and my observation of the sequence of things.” (Palmer’s former spokesman, Doc Giffin, told GOLF.com that he recalls Palmer discussing Norman’s proposal with Palmer’s contacts at IMG and with the Tour after talking to Norman about it, “but I don’t think his opposition to it was influenced by either entity.”)
Which brings us back to McIlroy’s comments.
In Norman’s view, they’re deja vu all over again.
This is how it looks from his perspective: McIlroy has a content deal with NBC Sports/Golf Channel in the form of GolfPass, a digital subscription service. NBC Sports/Golf Channel has a contract with the PGA Tour, which has made it clear that it sees the PGL as direct competition. Somewhere along the line, Norman believes, someone must have gotten in McIlroy’s ear.
“When I first wanted to do the world tour, Rory was probably around eight years old,” Norman said. (McIlroy was five when Norman announced his plans). “So, either Rory watched what I was doing and has a hell of a memory, or someone coached him.”
Reached by email, a Golf Channel spokesperson dismissed Norman’s take as “absolutely untrue,” as did a representative for McIlroy. Both noted McIlroy’s reputation for forthrightness and independent thinking.
“Surely by now, people know Rory speaks for himself,” McIlroy’s representative said.
Norman isn’t known for being shy with his thoughts, either. Though he says he isn’t working with the PGL in any formal capacity, he’s been openly bullish about the league. Late last month, he flew to Saudi Arabia for the Saudi Golf Summit, where he met with PGL financial backers, who are reportedly tied to Saudi oil money.
Whether or not the PGL winds up taking off, the current momentum behind it has reinforced Norman’s view of himself as a man who had the right idea at the wrong time, caught in history’s repeating cycles.
“It was a really good dream,” Norman said of his world tour concept. “But everybody is fiercely defensive of their space. And in that sense, things haven’t changed much since 1994.”
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