Tour Confidential: Lexi Thompson’s PGA Tour debut, LIV Golf’s future without World Ranking points
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Lexi Thompson’s PGA Tour debut at the Shriners Children’s Open, LIV Golf’s uncertain World Ranking future, Korn Ferry Tour grads and more.
Lexi Thompson became the seventh woman to play in a PGA Tour event when she received a sponsor’s exemption into the Shriners Children’s Open. Playing from the same tees as the men, Thompson (73-69) had an inspiring charge on Friday as she tried to become just the second woman to ever make a cut in a PGA Tour event, but she bogeyed two of her last five and missed by three. How impressed should Average Joe Golf Fan be with this performance?
Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): Incredibly impressed. Vegas sportsbooks are always irritatingly accurate when it comes to creating lines and props, and Thompson’s first-round over/under score was set at 77.5. She blew that away. I have no issue with her getting a sponsor’s exemption here — the attention it received and her superb play showed it was worth it — but that kind of invite only adds to the pressure to perform. She’s had some hiccups in big events in the past, but she was really good in Las Vegas. How many people in the world — male or female — could take that exemption, with that kind of pressure, and play as well as she did?
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@Jess_Marksbury): Shooting those scores from that yardage is unreal. There’s no question that Lexi deserves a ton of credit for her performance. It seemed like an odd time for her to accept an exemption like that, given the difficult year she’s had on the LPGA Tour, but she handled herself admirably.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Not only did she beat oddsmakers’ expectations, she also beat a good number of Tour winners, including a few multiple-time winners. Hugely impressive given the scrutiny she was under. A great use of a sponsor’s exemption.
What is it about Thompson’s game that made her competitive (and exceed expectations)? Do you think she’ll now receive more invites to men’s events?
Berhow: She hits it a long ways, and the course and dry conditions didn’t hurt either. It was interesting to hear her say that this setup might have actually helped her since it allowed her to hit more drivers than she’s used to on the LPGA Tour. “I don’t get to take advantage of sometimes my length on a few of those holes [on the LPGA]” she said. Stats will also tell you she putted really well, which isn’t always her strong suit. But you need the right mindset for an event like this; you need to feel like you belong. And Thompson, who grew up playing with her brothers (both now pros, too) wasn’t intimidated by the moment. As for more invites coming her way? It’s definitely an intriguing option for tournament organizers, especially during the sleepy season, but I think Thompson might also want to focus on winning LPGA tournaments.
Marksbury: Her length definitely puts her on a pretty short list of women who could handle a PGA Tour setup. And while I appreciate the reception her performance has received, I’m not sure regular PGA Tour exemptions are what the women’s game really needs. When Annika did it, it made sense: she was absolutely dominating the LPGA and pitting her against the men made for an intriguing comparison. But I worry that continually trotting out LPGA stars on PGA Tour setups may have the opposite effect. I’m excited to see women’s golf elevated in other ways, like the upcoming Grant Thornton, which will feature mixed teams of men and women.
Sens: Agreed, Jess. These exemptions should be handed out sparingly. I understand the public’s curiosity in seeing how the best women stack up against the men, but I don’t think special slots should be allotted on a regular basis purely on the basis of gender. U.S. Open qualifying is open to all. Lexi or one of her peers could always try to play their way into that one.
After 16 months of deliberation, LIV Golf has been denied World Ranking points, with the OWGR board essentially saying the biggest strike against LIV was its lack of guaranteed promotion and relegation of players. Are you surprised? And was this the right move?
Berhow: Not totally surprised, because it sounded like this was the likely outcome for a while now. What gets me is that LIV Golf wanted its format to be different, yes, but if we are going back to the early days, I’d want to make sure my start-up league would be doing everything it could to make it incredibly easy to be included in the system. Instead it seemed like LIV did what it wanted and was expecting everyone else to conform. Apparently that tactic didn’t work.
Marksbury: Spot on, Josh. There was never any indication that this was going to work in LIV’s favor. But I did find it interesting that LIV has a bit of a roadmap to OWGR legitimacy now. Time will tell if they will make any changes — or if their players will even care that much.
Sens: PIF chair Yasir Al-Rumayyan played golf with the R&A’s Martin Slumbers and OWGR’s Peter Dawson at the Dunhill right before this decision came down, so none of this should come as a surprise to LIV. Or to anyone else. Dawson’s letter on the decision lays out a lot of the rationale (mainly, limited channels for players performing their way onto LIV or dropping off the circuit), all of which sounds defensible enough on the face of it. LIV’s failure to meet a number of the criteria gave the OWGR plausible ground to stand on. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that all kinds of other political and economic considerations weren’t also at play, and that we aren’t being told the entire story. One of the many lessons of the past year-plus is that we shouldn’t count on golf’s major power brokers being entirely transparent with us.
There are still lots of questions regarding how things will shake out with the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf merger, but now that we know LIV players won’t receive these crucial World Ranking points — the gateway to majors for the majority of LIV players — what do you think it means for the future of the league? Do you think any LIV players, especially ones who didn’t sign mega guaranteed contracts, now have buyer’s remorse?
Berhow: I would guess some players joined LIV thinking — or being told — it was a mere formality that they’d soon be playing for World Ranking points, but at the same time they knew the risk level of joining a new, controversial golf league wasn’t zero. It will be really interesting to see exactly what LIV is a year or two from now, and I’m even more intrigued on what the path back to the PGA Tour might be for those players, if they want it.
Marksbury: The big names who joined LIV had to expect this as a possibility, regardless of what they were told when signing. But I do think it could be a deterrent for future high-profile amateurs, several of whom LIV has signed over the past two years. The World Ranking news must be disappointing for them. But two of the majors offer open qualification, so there’s always that avenue.
Sens: Possibly some buyer’s remorse for a few of them. But since these guys are all highly paid entertainers, I think the more relevant question is whether the paying customer should have any regrets. After all, isn’t this supposed to be about improving professional golf as a product? That’s what we’ve been told all along. Six LIV players are past Masters champs and exempt into Augusta. Other top LIV players, including Koepka and Smith, have major exemptions as well. Viewers will not be deprived of them in 2024, and after that, who knows what’s going to happen with LIV anyway. In the meantime, does the idea that some of the lesser LIV players might have to qualify their way into, say, the U.S. Open, really strike you as some kind of grave injustice, worthy of your deep remorse? There are better uses of energy and time.
Earlier this month, the PGA Tour gained 30 new cardholders who advanced out of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship. Some players golf fans might have heard of, while others probably fly under the radar. Give me one name on that list golf fans need to know about for 2024?
Berhow: Norman Xiong. I’m more familiar with his story than I am with the others — I wrote about Norman’s rise and fall two years ago — but he’s a 24-year-old former college superstar at Oregon (NCAA Freshman of the Year, Fred Haskins and Jack Nicklaus award winner). He was the next big thing in golf but his career got sidetracked. He’s worked his way all the way back from zero status and won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour. Now he’s on the PGA Tour. Very cool.
Marksbury: I’m cheating and choosing two: the Coody twins, Pierceson and Parker. What a cool story: third-generation pros whose grandfather won the Masters and whose father played two PGA Tour events. Will be fun to watch them both try to add more accolades to the family legacy.
Sens: Rico Hoey. Mostly for the nickname: WGD, for World’s Greatest Driver. That’s quite a literal moniker. Let’s see if it’s true.