LIV Golf vs. the PGA Tour: Pro golf rebellion is dominating U.S. Open week
BROOKLINE, Mass. — There’s a date inscribed on Rory McIlroy’s golf bag this week:
April 18, 1775.
On that date the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired at dawn in Lexington, Mass. The ensuing battle kicked off the American Revolution. You know generally how it went from there.
The Country Club is less than 15 miles from the Lexington Battle Green. This week, it’s playing host to the U.S. Open, which doubles as a clash between PGA Tour Loyalists and the LIV breakaway faction. I won’t extend the metaphor any further because, well, none of this is quite that simple. McIlroy grew up in the U.K., after all. The fact that he’s sporting American Revolution couture is a reminder that all allegiance is flexible. But one thing is clear: Men’s professional golf is fracturing in real time, with no clear path back to the status quo.
Typically you’d expect leaders of a rebellion to be the loudest, boldest talkers. That has not held true thus far.
Phil Mickelson, an early leader of the player exodus from the PGA Tour to the Saudi-backed LIV breakaway series, appeared at the microphone on Monday morning. He faced 30 questions but said as little as possible. He didn’t make a case for LIV. He didn’t defend its existence. He took long pauses and cut answers short and appeared to be channeling his energy into suppressing every natural conversational instinct he possesses.
Why join LIV? On that point Mickelson was somewhat more forthright, acknowledging that “there’s an obvious incredible financial commitment … with fewer tournaments. It allows me to have more balance in my life.” In other words: play less golf for more money.
Bryson DeChambeau, another LIV defector whose nine-figure deal rivaled Mickelson’s, spoke to Golf Channel later on Monday. He hit those same talking points. “There was a lot of financials to it and a lot of time,” he said. “I get to have a life outside of the game of golf as well.” He used the phrase “business decision” several times.
It makes sense for employees of any corporation to celebrate working less and making more money. The American Dream! It does seem like a less compelling sales pitch for fans, who generally pay to watch the best in the game rather than those with proper work-life balance. But LIV’s recruits don’t seem particularly concerned with convincing us they’ve made the right decision. They’ll leave as quietly as possible.
But this is the first time we’ve seen LIVers and PGA Tour players cohabitate since the split. And by contrast, the PGA Tour’s staunchest defenders have circled the wagons and begun to hit talking points of their own. Rory McIlroy expressed his appreciation for the circuit’s “massive legacy” and said he’s taken a leadership role because he thinks protecting the Tour is the right thing to do.
“I’d hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they’ve put in just come out to be nothing,” he said.
Justin Thomas made a philosophical appeal.
“You have to love what you’re doing,” he said. “There’s no amount of money that you could get that if you don’t love or enjoy what you’re actually doing, the amount of money you have doesn’t — you’re still going to be miserable. You’re still not going to enjoy it. You might have a bigger house or a nicer car, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is going to be any better.”
Jon Rahm, still the Tour’s most underrated talker, issued the strongest defense yet of the Tour’s product.
“Shotgun three days to me is not a golf tournament, no cut. It’s that simple,” he said. “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see.
“Yeah, money is great, but when this first thing happened, [Kelley and I] started talking about it, and we’re like, will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million? No, it will not change one bit.”
“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world.”
Rahm’s words vs. DeChambeau’s frame the current state of the debate. The PGA Tour is leaning on history, legacy and moral high ground. LIV is leaning on money, novelty, a limited schedule and money. LIV’s launch last week went off without major incident and with several big names in tow. The PGA Tour punched back with a riveting finish in which McIlroy outdueled Thomas and Tony Finau down the stretch. Some have argued that this sort of competition is good for the PGA Tour, long-term. That could be true, presuming the PGA Tour doesn’t crumble in the process.
Talk of the rift has consumed the grounds — particularly inside the ropes.
“Everyone was fed up with hearing about it and they were like, ‘all right, just start already,'” said Matthew Fitzpatrick on Monday. “And now they’ve started, and everyone is like, ‘oh, actually this is quite interesting, what’s going to happen now?'”
Players are making decisions in nearly real-time. Their teams are figuring out where that leaves them. Coaches used to having all their pros on the PGA Tour now have a split schedule to navigate. Agents and pros mulling the leap have differed on matters of money and morality, causing awkwardness and rifts. Rumors begin easily and spread quickly, which becomes a stressor of its own.
Not everyone is so excited about the chatter.
“I’m here at the U.S. Open. I’m ready to play U.S. Open, and I think it kind of sucks, too, you are all throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open. It’s one of my favorite events. I don’t know why you guys keep doing that,” said Brooks Koepka in a tense exchange on Tuesday. His brother Chase made his LIV debut last week. Brooks declined to speak out for either camp.
Collin Morikawa was dismayed that his name has been tossed around, too.
“One of my best friends just texted me about this tweet from a random account saying, hey, there’s these rumors.
“It’s crazy to see and hear all these rumors because that’s what they are, right? I can read all these things, but look, everyone tells their kids don’t believe what’s on the internet. That’s what we’re doing. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.
“I understand it’s your guys’ job to get all the details, but at the end of the day I think we’re asking the wrong people.”
The extent to which this debate extends beyond the media center and the driving range into the real world beyond is up for some debate. Mickelson received near-unanimous support from crowds on Tuesday, dishing out thumbs up and yukking it up with spectators during a nine-hole practice round. He has three decades of goodwill to draw on, after all, and the majority of golf fans don’t have the emotional bandwidth to wade into the game’s geopolitics.
There are also a slew of players reaching across the aisle. Max Homa, who has planted his flag with the PGA Tour, played both Monday and Tuesday with LIV defector Talor Gooch. The two were close friends before Gooch teed it up in London and they’ll continue to be.
Rumors of Rickie Fowler’s departure didn’t prevent him from teeing it up alongside Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Joel Dahmen on Tuesday. And Mickelson teed it up in the same group as Rahm, his longtime friend and mentee, despite the fact they’re on diametrically opposite sides of the situation. There’s a big-picture threat to the PGA Tour, but force of habit means the day-to-day of this week’s U.S. Open looks awfully familiar.
What happens next? The rumor mill won’t stop turning. Next week’s Travelers Championship has a series of subplots attached; Fowler is scheduled to play, DeChambeau just withdrew and big-time Tour names like McIlroy and Thomas will be there. Speculation will continue as long as LIV has nine-figure contracts to hand out. Many Tour pros didn’t think they were missing anything until they saw their peers cashing in. Now they’re agitated at the idea they won’t have the same opportunities. Few sports leave more time for idle chatter than professional golf. The chatter has a little more juice this week.
In the longer term it feels inevitable, given the state of the world, that we’re headed for a future of more extreme polarization. LIV fans and PGA Tour fans. Phil defenders and Rory defenders. The rhetoric on social media has already ramped up dramatically, a fact not lost on the players involved. Life imitates Instagram, eventually.
In the meantime, though, we’ll happily put that chatter on hold for four glorious days. We’ll slip into the issues of the day, the terrific test posed by the Country Club and all the subplots that come with conducting America’s national championship. We’ll talk about the rough and the greens and the USGA’s setup. This is a more natural state for the game; golf has always been better at focusing on little details than big-picture changes.
But rebellions don’t happen all at once. So change will press on nonetheless.