This pro got kicked off LIV. Now that he’s back, will others follow his path?
Last June, at LIV Golf’s debut event outside of London, Charl Schwartzel shot seven under par over three rounds to win the circuit’s first-ever first prize: a check for $4 million.
Thirty-one strokes behind him was a former U.S. Amateur champ battling injury and professional golf limbo. Andy Ogletree had some conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour, but not enough to play a meaningful number of events. In what mostly amounted to an act of desperation, he had elected to roll the dice and play LIV’s inaugural tournament.
But shooting 82-77-75 wasn’t in his plans. Getting subsequently suspended from the PGA Tour wasn’t, either. Nor was what came after. LIV recruited bigger names than his, booting Ogletree out of the 48-player circuit and into obscurity.
But in the 15 months that followed, Ogletree played his way out of limbo. Now he’s on the brink of a full-time return to LIV. Speaking at this week’s LIV event outside of Chicago — where he’s filling in as a reserve — he thinks other young pros may follow his path, providing a concrete example of the ways in which LIV could shape the future for young pros.
All of which raises an essential question: Does he have a point?
What happens after LIV?
After shooting 24 over par at Centurion, Ogletree fell into the pro golf abyss. Demoted from LIV. Suspended from the PGA Tour. His only lifeline came in the form of the International Series, events conducted under the umbrella of the Asian Tour and funded by a $300 million commitment from LIV.
Ogletree didn’t find his footing immediately. His next start post-LIV was a T57 at the International Series Singapore. Then came a T15 at the International Series Korea. Then, 11 weeks later, a missed cut at the International Series Morocco. But then, from nowhere, something different happened: He shot a final-round 62 en route to winning the International Series Egypt. This was a breakthrough; Ogletree’s Asian Tour status was now secure, which meant he at least had a place to play for the following season.
But by winning Ogletree showed himself something else, too. He had the game to play his way back onto LIV.
Once you’re off LIV, how do you get back?
From the beginning, an easy critique of LIV was its absence of meritocracy. The league targeted whichever big names it could, luring pros from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour with massive up-front paydays and the promise of playing for much, much more. That was an appealing pitch; Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson were among the initial signees, while more top dogs signed on in time, including Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Smith. But there was no clear path to play your way into — or out of — LIV’s 48-man fields.
There was one spot available, though. The winner of the International Series Order of Merit would earn his way into the next year’s field of 48. And so Scott Vincent of Zimbabwe — who, like Ogletree, had played in the inaugural LIV London event before eventually getting bumped — played his way into the 2023 season.
Ogletree entered 2023 with his eye on the same prize Vincent had won the year before. He got off to a good start with a seventh-place finish at the International Series Oman. Then he won the International Series Qatar. Three starts later he won again, this time throttling a LIV-heavy field at the International Series England and finishing seven shots clear of second place. His massive lead in the Order of Merit all but guarantees he’ll be back on LIV next season through that exemption.
Speaking ahead of LIV’s Chicago event, Ogletree expressed just how much he was looking forward to the stability of a full LIV season. (This is his fourth start as a fill-in player in 2023.) But he also teased out something interesting: the idea that other young promising pros may look outside the PGA Tour system as they chase a career in professional golf.
The alternate path
Asked whether other pros had reached out for advice, Ogletree nodded.
“Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of college guys, and I think you’re going to start seeing a lot more kids go to Asian Tour Q-School from America,” he said. “Just because, I mean, the purses next year, there’s rumors of $3 million purses on the Asian Tour International Series.”
He compared that to a typical Korn Ferry purse, which is $1 million for regular season events and $1.5 million for playoff events.
“From a financial standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense,” he added. “I think a lot of guys are starting to realize that, especially if they don’t get their Korn Ferry card or play bad at Q-school or something. Then instead of going to PGA Tour Canada or PGA Tour Latin America, Asia is the next best option.”
That’s hardly a new story. Itinerant golf pros who have fallen short of their PGA Tour dreams have long sought alternatives, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. Word travels fast through golf’s lower circuits about any opportunity, any inefficiency in the market, which means those inefficiencies don’t tend to last for long.
For a while, the dig on Americans going to play Q-school for the European Tour (now the DP World Tour) was that it was difficult to play your way back to the PGA Tour. Even if you turned into a solid pro in Europe, there was no way to translate that into PGA Tour status unless you worked your way into the top 50 in the world. That has since changed; the top 10 pros on the DP World Tour’s Order of Merit this season will earn their PGA Tour cards for 2024. But the same critique was true of American pros playing the Asian Tour — there was no end game that would get you back to playing stateside. Now there is an end game: LIV.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see what people do and I think people have seen what I have done and been able to do and how it gets you to LIV,” Ogletree said. “Obviously there’s a huge market for people wanting to play LIV Golf.”
It’s easy for Ogletree to sell the dream. That’s not meant to take anything away from his play, which has been terrific. It’s just that he’s the one guy on the planet who will benefit from this specific exemption in 2024. The Korn Ferry Tour will send at least 30 players to the PGA Tour for next season, while the International Series will send just one to LIV. The PGA Tour has made changes to accelerate the pathways for rising stars, too; the top five finishers at Q-school will progress straight to the PGA Tour, while top college players have the opportunity to play their way straight onto the Tour. But Ogletree’s the perfect spokesman to encourage others to chase the dream he realized.
There are also the unknowns of LIV and its potential agreement with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. If the parties reach an agreement, there could be a future where pros pass more easily between tours. But there’s no guarantee that’s the case. There also remains the question of LIV’s Saudi backing. While the proposed agreement has calmed some of the waters surrounding Saudi money in the sport, there are pros who aren’t keen on playing for a league funded by the country’s sovereign wealth fund and overseen by top government officials.
There’s the question of golf’s biggest events, too. LIV pros still have no avenue to major championships other than open qualifying or pre-existing status. They have no world ranking points. There’s no question that LIV has star golfers playing its circuit. The question is whether it can actually create them from obscurity.
But these are the problems of pro golf’s one-percenters. The world’s top 50 can decide whether they’d like to play for $20 million purses on the PGA Tour or LIV. Thousands beneath them are just hoping to earn a living playing golf. To hear Ogletree tell it, the Asian Tour currently presents a particularly efficient way of doing just that. There’s money to be made and the dangling carrot of a LIV berth lurking just ahead.
The International Series isn’t the only way to qualify for LIV’s 2024 season. There’s actually a decent amount of turnover; the bottom four players will be relegated at the end of the season and only the top 24 (plus captains — and an unknown number of pros under contract) are guaranteed deals for next year. That means there will be a free agency period to re-sign or replace certain pros in that 25th to 44th zone.
But there’s another way onto LIV, too: a 72-hole stroke-play tournament will be held in November with three spots available for LIV’s 2024 season. Earlier this year LIV laid out eligibility for that qualifying tournament, which targets accomplished pros as well as top ams. Here’s a simplified version of those qualified to enter:
-Pros relegated from LIV in 2023
-Nos. 2-32 in the 2023 International Series
-Winners from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour in 2023
-Major champions since 2018
-Players inside the top 200 in the Official World Golf Ranking at the close of entries
-Players inside the top 20 of the World Amateur Golf Rankings at the close of entries
-Members of the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams
-Winners of the most recent U.S. Am, British Am, NCAA Division I individual stroke play, Latin American Am, Asia-Pacific Am, European Am and Eisenhower Individual teams
All the while, the Korn Ferry Tour is holding its playoffs, and its Q-school will follow soon after. PGA Tour pros are battling for their cards in the first-ever FedEx Cup Fall. Everywhere you look, pros are fighting to keep the dream alive — or start it from scratch.
They’ve got options.