‘Not an easy decision’: Why this longtime PGA Tour site embraced LIV Golf
The schedule for LIV Golf’s sophomore season is still a work in progress, but the tour has confirmed that its 2023 campaign will kick off Feb. 24 at the El Camaleón course at Mayakoba, a sprawling resort and residential property on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
You might know El Camaleón for its signature cave bunker in the middle of the 7th fairway. You might also know El Camaleón as the host site for 16 years of the PGA Tour event known today as [deep breath] the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba. Just last month, Russell Henley won the latest edition of the WWTC, beating runner-up Brian Harman by four strokes.
El Camaleón, at least for the foreseeable future, will not find itself in the unlikely position of simultaneously serving as a host site for two tours that are suing one another. That’s because as LIV has initiated a partnership with Mayakoba, the PGA Tour has quietly stepped away from its own.
A Tour spokesperson told GOLF.com that its facility agreement with Mayakoba owner RLH Properties ended with the 2022 event and would not be re-upped, adding, “The PGA TOUR and World Wide Technology are working together to identify new host site options and will determine a new direction in the near future.” A statement from WWT, provided via the Tour, read in part, “We will explore PGA TOUR tournament sponsorship options in the future as we continue to support communities around the globe.”
But this is where things get a bit murky, as things often do with breakups. On Thursday of last week, a Mayakoba spokesperson wrote in a statement to GOLF.com, “The PGA Tour did not prior and still has not informed Mayakoba they will be not renewing the WWTC event at Mayakoba in 2023. Their agreement remains intact as of this morning. Mayakoba is keen to host its PGA Tour event for the 17th year. Unless the PGA Tour will confirm, the Mayakoba event could very well remain on the PGA Tour’s 2023-2024 schedule.”
On Friday, in a phone interview with GOLF.com, RLH Properties CEO Borja Escalada said he last met with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and Andy Pazder, who is the Tour’s chief tournaments and competitions officer, at the WWTC last month. In that meeting, Escalada said he asked how the Tour would feel about sharing a venue with LIV.
“They said, ‘That’s a great question,’” Escalada recalled. ”’We do not have an answer today.’ Basically, what we said is, ‘If there’s anything you think we can do to support both tournaments and to support golf — which is what we’re really focused on — we’d be more than happy to do it.’”
When notified of the statement the PGA Tour had provided GOLF.com, Escalada said, “We have not received as strong an answer as you have received but we can assume that [the PGA Tour relocating the WWTC] most probably will be the case.”
When asked why the Tour chose not to re-up its deal with Mayakoba, a Tour spokesperson declined to comment. But it’s not hard to read the tea leaves. Given the Tour and LIV’s deeply fractured relationship, Ponte Vedra’s c-suite would surely recoil at the notion of sharing a site with the Saudi-financed league. Also, the Tour-LIV rivalry aside, sharing a venue with another big-time golf event is generally not good business when it comes to trying to attract fans and sponsorships. It dilutes the brand.
Escalada’s team has been talking to LIV representatives for more than two years, he said. There’s a natural bridge: Greg Norman, LIV’s CEO and commissioner, designed El Camaleón, so he’s had a longstanding relationship with Mayakoba. Escalada also is close with many LIV players, he said. Two past WWTC winners — Graeme McDowell and Pat Perez — are now on LIV’s payroll, as are Mexico’s two biggest stars, Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz. A fifth LIV player, Sergio Garcia — who hails from Escalada’s native Spain — is designing a course at Mayakoba that will open in 2024. Ancer, Ortiz and Garcia are LIV teammates. So, yeah, if had you spent even a little time trying to identify a PGA Tour site that might partner with LIV, Mayakoba likely would have landed on your short list.
Thirteen months ago, during the week of the 2021 WWTC, Escalada invited several players to his home for dinner to discuss, among other topics, the players’ feelings about LIV Golf, which at that point was still just a well-funded rumor. “We came away from the meeting with the idea that LIV was something we’ll start thinking on,” Escalada said.
And think they did. In the ensuing months, Escalada said, he learned as much as he could about LIV and how players were responding to it. He had many conversations with Norman, other LIV executives and LIV players, as well as PGA Tour executives and other notables around the golf world. He and his team weighed the pros and cons — exposure, sponsorships, LIV’s perception, site fees, players Mayakoba would lose and gain — before ultimately deciding to sign with LIV, in part, Escalada said, because he believes it will “open a huge window to the world and how much we have to offer.”
“This was not an easy decision,” Escalada added. “The PGA Tour has been explaining to us everything they have to offer.”
But there was at least one thing — or two players, to be more precise — that the PGA Tour could not offer Mayakoba: Ancer and Ortiz. “We like to think we have been part of the development of the history of Mexican golf,” Escalada said of Mayakoba’s standing as the first-ever PGA Tour site in Mexico, “and it was sad for us not having the two best Mexican players in history here.” He added, “Our young golfers look up to them.”
Bringing LIV to Mayakoba means Ancer and Ortiz now have a home game again.
Another factor that would have weighed on Mayakoba’s decision-making: the uncertain future of the PGA Tour’s fall schedule. Under the Tour’s newly implemented “elevated” schedule — which will bring the top players together more frequently from January to August — the nine fall events, beginning in 2023, will no longer award FedEx Cup points and instead serve as a de facto Q School with players who finished 71-125 on the FedEx points list competing in those tournaments for playing privileges in the ensuing season.
This should mean more drama for a part of the schedule that competes for Sunday eyeballs with the mighty National Football League, but it could also mean fewer stars in the fields. As Peter Malnati, co-chairman of the Player Advisory Council, told Golfweek’s Adam Schupak: “The Tour knows this isn’t awesome for the sponsors of the fall events to tell them that the guys who finish top 70 don’t have to play your events and probably won’t.”
Viktor Hovland, who has won two of his three career PGA Tour titles at Mayakoba, was asked last week at the Hero World Challenge, which he went on to win, about the Tour’s decision to sever ties with the Mexico site.
“It’s a free market, they can do whatever they want,” Hovland said. “That’s certainly not going to take away the memories that I had from that place. I don’t know what the Tour has announced, but I have a hope that we can still come back there and still host an event there. I don’t see the issue logistically with having two tournaments there, and then maybe the PGA Tour can show that, hey, this is how we run an event there, and make it a competition in that way, see who shows up and see which event is better. If not, then I’ll try to find other places that I can win on.”
Unless the PGA Tour and LIV have an unexpected kumbaya moment, the Tour is unlikely to endorse any plan that has the tours sharing sites (or just about anything else for that matter). Mayakoba, on the other hand, would jump at the opportunity.
“We’ve expressed to both LIV and the PGA Tour that we’d be more than happy to try to make that happen,” Escalada said. “We understand that there are many places to play golf, but why should a venue only host one event?”